Analysis: Turkey’s Prime Minister went too far, too fast

By Simon Allison 5 June 2013

Massive protests in Turkey have caught Prime Minister Erdogan, usually the consummate politician, off guard. But he only has himself to blame, argues SIMON ALLISON, after ditching his trademark patience in favour of blunt authoritarianism.

I have long admired Recep Tayyep Erdogan as a politician. Ignore the ideology for a moment, and just appreciate the brilliance of a man who, through strength of charisma and vision, was able to defy and mostly dismantle Turkey’s entrenched, rotten political establishment and challenge, successfully and without bloodshed, the doctrine at the heart of Turkish nationalism and the modern Turkish state.

The enormity of the latter achievement should not be underestimated. Just as South Africa venerates Nelson Mandela – and he’s not even dead yet – so Turkey exalts Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his philosophy, which can briefly be summarised as “Western-oriented secular militarism, with just a hint of Turkish supremacy”. It’s far more complicated than that, of course, but that’s enough to know that Erdogan’s repositioning of Turkey as an Islamist-leaning, conservative democracy with designs on reliving the glory days of the Ottoman Empire is an abrupt departure from anything that modern Turkey has seen before.

Ataturk, no doubt, is rolling in his mausoleum.

Erdogan(pronounced with a silent “g”) has achieved his quiet revolution with a minimum of fuss. He’s been patient, and clever, making sure his policies appeal to the core of his voting base – the Anatolian masses who were so often excluded by Ankara and Istanbul – while doing his best to keep his liberal opponents quiet by enacting gradual rather than sweeping changes, and by trying to stick to the letter, if not the spirit, of Ataturk’s doctrine.

My favourite example of this is Turkey’s decades-old bid to join the European Union. For Ataturk, Europe was Turkey’s future, so much so that he replaced the Arabic script of the Turkish language with Roman letters. As soon as there was even a hint of a chance that Turkey could be legally part of Europe, Turkey’s leaders – the ones moulded in Ataturk’s image – seized on it. It became the holy grail of Turkish foreign policy.

When Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were first elected in 2002, he promised to keep trying for EU membership – despite his obvious lack of interest. It was crucial that he did so, helping to calm the fears of the urban elites and keep a nervous military off his back. And he kept his promise, even enacting various domestic reforms to try and comply with the EU’s requirements.

It was a typical Erdogan move that, ultimately, cost him nothing; although negotiations splutter along, the EU, predictably, has made it clear it’s not that interested in incorporating such a large Muslim nation. Using the tacit rejection as a spur, Erdogan has focused his attention on turning Turkey into an Arab power once again, which has proved to be a surprisingly popular move domestically.

These clever gambles and compromises, coupled with some astute economic policy, have been a winning formula. “For a few years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s mercurial prime minister, was on top of the world,” writes Shashank Joshi in the Telegraph. “In 2011, as regional leaders fell around him like dominoes, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide election on a massive turnout. That same year, his visit to post-revolution Egypt was marked by adulatory crowds, many of whom admired Erdogan’s willingness to take on Israel, at least rhetorically, and saw in Turkey a marriage of Islam and democracy that might yield lessons for the countries emerging from the Arab Spring. Regional surveys consistently showed that Turkey’s favourability rating in the Muslim world had soared over the past decade, and that Erdogan was the region’s most popular figure by far. Moreover, he had appeared to vanquish the traditional scourge of Turkish democracy: the coup. Remarkably, over half of Turkey’s admirals and many of its generals languish in jail, many on allegedly trumped-up charges.”

One astonishing statistic rounds off this already impressive list of achievements: from 2002 to 2012, Turkey’s economy tripled in size. Make no mistake: Erdogan has put plenty of money where his mouth is.

But he’s getting cocky. Over the last decade, he destroyed the major source of opposition to his rule, the military, whose power was eviscerated in a judicial campaign against the shadowy “deep state” which supposedly pulled Turkey’s strings from behind the scenes. Opposition parties have also been sidelined, as much by their own in-fighting as by any cunning strategy on Erdogan’s part. This leaves his power largely unchallenged, and backed up by that landslide election win. He is the people’s autocrat.

But that’s the problem: as his power has grown, so have those autocratic tendencies. In 2012, Turkey imprisoned more journalists than any other country on earth. The strong religious beliefs of Erdogan and his supporters – for so long anathema in Turkish politics, so much so that Erdogan was once imprisoned for reciting a religious poem in public – are being allowed to influence everyday life, with new bans on alcohol particularly problematic (the Turks are undoubtedly the Muslim world’s most prolific drinkers). And, most ominously, there’s good reason to believe that Erdogan wants to amend Turkey’s constitution to allow him to keep executive power beyond his two permitted terms as prime minister.

Erdogan’s many detractors, suspicious for so long of his intentions, are getting worried that they may have been right all along – and have finally found a way to express their fears.

Erdogan only has himself to blame for the unrest. A relatively innocuous demonstration to protect a small park in the centre of Istanbul was shut down by authorities with excessive force. Word of the attack spread quickly, and suddenly Erdogan’s disenfranchised opponents had their rallying point.

In a recent interview, Jordan’s King Abdullah said in an interview with the Atlantic that Erdogan described democracy to him as a bus ride, as in, “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off”.The current protests, which have drawn thousands of people in cities across the country, are about making sure that Erdogan stays on the democracy bus.

“These protests were inevitable as the government chipped away at our freedoms and our country’s secularity,” said Deniz Cottrell, a protestor in Istanbul, speaking to the Daily Maverick. Cottrell joined the protests in Taksim Square because although he’s been concerned by Erdogan’s policies for some time, he doesn’t feel that there has been a platform before where he can express his feelings. “The opposition parties are incapable of running the country and representing me. I vote for CHP (the Republican People’s Party) only because it is the lesser of the two evils. Unfortunately, opposition parties like CHP and the Communist Party were involved in the protests which I thought was them taking advantage of the situation. I hold them responsible as much as the AKP because it’s their fault that they are such a weak opposition to AKP.”

He added that revolution, or even Erdogan’s resignation, was not really the point of the protests (even though foreign commentators have been quick – too quick – to describe them as a “Turkish Spring”). “I don’t know when or how these protests will end. A lot of people on the streets want Erdogan to resign but that’s not going to happen. After all, he was voted for by the majority of Turkish people. However, these protests don’t seem to be dying out. Only an apology and the promise of a les authoritarian rule, where the public is fully informed of the changes that will be happening in their community, will calm people down.”

Ferhat Zamanpur, another Istanbul protestor, echoed Cottrell’s comments, describing the protests as “the people of Turkey coming together to take a stand against not being able to take a stand”.

He added: “The one common problem [the protestors] have is that the moment one of them takes a stand against any of the prime minister’s decisions, they are subject to incredible pressure. This pressure was initially just social and financial but over the last couple days, it has transcended into what can be called a ‘government-sponsored war on its citizens’. Tens, now hundreds of thousands of innocent, peaceful civilians have been brutally attacked by the police, the very force they pay to protect them.”

For the first time in his meteoric political ascent, it is clear that Erdogan has misplayed his hand, and lost control of the situation. He ditched the patience which has worked so well for him and went too far, too fast with his controversial policies – which, while popular in some segments of Turkish society, are certainly not universally so. And he’s also been caught out in his reaction, which has been stern and uncompromising.

Maybe he thinks he’s strong enough that he doesn’t need to make friends with everybody anymore. Maybe he really has got off that bus. Either way, it’s a miscalculation from a man who hasn’t made many in his political career. How he responds now, as the severity of the unrest becomes clear, will determine both his and Turkey’s future. DM

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Photo: People display placards in central Paris June 4, 2013 which refer to Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as “The New Dictator” during a gathering by several hundred people who show their support of the citizens of Turkey who have staged protests in Istanbul. Turkey’s deputy prime minister apologised on Tuesday for “excessive violence” by police in an effort to defuse days of unrest. Placard (R) reads, “We won’t give up”. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier


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