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Turks in the Streets

This time, it’s personal. They dislike the prime minister.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By LEE SMITH
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Two weeks of protests across Turkey that have left four dead and more than 5,000 injured have observers wondering whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing an Anatolian Spring. Is Turkey’s Islamic ruler weathering a crisis similar to the revolutionary climate that sent Arab protesters into the streets two years ago, pitted populations against each other, and in several notable cases toppled dictators?

Erdogan the Problem

Erdogan the Problem

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The short answer is no. In spite of the excessive use of police force, Turkey is still a genuine, if flawed, democracy, where real politics, competition, compromise, public opinion, and, as the protests show, consent of the governed are central to the normal functioning of the system. The demonstrations represent something like a course correction, the ship of state trying to right itself in spite of a captain intent on running it aground. The problem is not Turkey, nor the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), nor, more generally, is it Islamism—the problem is Erdogan himself.

It’s curious that it took the Turks this long to discover what much of the world has known since Erdogan came to power in 2003—he is a vain and impatient martinet who expects the world to bend to his will and stamps his feet and turns red with anger when it doesn’t. The man who threatened Turkish protesters last week and said they are in league with foreign plotters is the same prime minister who stormed off the stage at Davos three years ago after screaming at Israeli president Shimon Peres and singlehandedly cashiering Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel. The Erdogan who champions Hamas is the same man who has subverted the Turkish judiciary to imprison enemies, including former top military officials, and put more journalists in jail than China or Iran. An aspiring leader of the Sunni world who calls Zionism a crime against humanity, Erdogan is the same divisive premier who names a bridge after a 16th-century Ottoman sultan most famous for slaughtering tens of thousands of members of Turkey’s Alevi minority. Finally, it seems the Turks have noticed what Erdogan is all about.

The protests began at the end of May with a small group of environmentalists demonstrating in Istanbul’s Taksim Square against the demolition of Gezi Park. Gezi is one of the few green spaces remaining in a city of 13.5 million and growing, thanks largely to the long economic boom that has been the main source of Erdogan’s appeal throughout Turkey. The plan was to pave over the park and build a shopping mall, with the contract going to a company alleged to have ties to Erdogan’s party. After the police used especially heavy-handed tactics in clearing the 50 or so protesters from the square, the demonstrations started to grow geometrically, with tens of thousands braving tear gas and water cannons in Taksim. By the end of the first week of June, protesters had taken to the streets in 78 cities and millions of Turks were awakening to the fact that they, too, had a gripe with Erdogan.

In big cities like Istanbul and Ankara and resort towns like Izmir and Bodrum with heavy concentrations of liberals and secularists, it was perhaps the zoning law restricting the sale of alcohol, or the one banning alcohol advertising, or efforts to outlaw abortion and other intrusions into people’s personal choices that sent protesters to the streets against Erdogan. What came as a surprise was that even in the most conservative regions of Anatolia, where the AKP traditionally counts on strong support, people came out against the prime minister. 

Maybe protesters didn’t like the fact that he was negotiating on his own a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ party, a group that has been at war with the state for three decades in a conflict that has cost thousands of lives. Or maybe they didn’t like Erdogan’s Syria policy, which has set Turkey on a course for war with a dangerous neighbor, flooded the south with hundreds of thousands of refugees, and made the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks, like the car-bombings in Reyhanli last month that killed 51 people. (And then instead of visiting Reyhanli in sympathy with the victims, Erdogan went off to Washington to petition Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, who many Turks see as the cause of their suffering.) There’s something for everyone to dislike about Erdogan, and what the Turks dislike most about him is his style—he’s an autocrat who makes decisions without consulting anyone except Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“People finally said enough,” says Tolga Tanis, Washington correspondent with the Turkish daily Hurriyet. “Erdogan always feels he needs to win, to prevail against his opponents. This was the first time he was challenged, and his charisma has been damaged.” The problem, says Tanis, is that there are few checks and balances keeping Erdogan honest. “The protests are the only checks and balances against him. The protests show the weakness of the political opposition.”

That is, if the Republican People’s party, or CHP, were capable of presenting a credible alternative to the AKP and thereby forcing Erdogan to compromise, there would have been no need for Turks to take their complaints to the street. But with Erdogan at the head, the AKP has won three straight elections and is unlikely to face much of a challenge in 2015. But Erdogan, in spite of his utmost efforts, may not be in the picture then.

Because Erdogan, according to the rules of his party, can’t run for a fourth term as prime minister in 2015, he wants to change Turkey’s parliamentary system to a presidential one, investing the office with higher powers than it now enjoys, and running for that office in 2014. In order to get the votes to rewrite the constitution, Erdogan has been wooing the Kurdish vote by negotiating with the still-imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers’ party. The public is alarmed by Erdogan’s efforts to cut a deal with a man many Turks consider a terrorist, and so is Fetullah Gulen, a wealthy expatriate businessman and mystical Islamist figure who may wield almost as much power from exile in Pennsylvania as Erdogan does from Ankara.

The Gulen movement, consisting of middle-class professionals who hold key positions in the educational system as well as in the police and judiciary, was instrumental in the rise of the AKP, but over the last several years Erdogan and Gulen have been on the outs. The Taksim protests have perhaps given the Gulenists more room to maneuver against Erdogan, and remake the party in their own image.

One instrument they may have at hand is President Abdullah Gul, who has presented a more moderate face of the AKP during the protests and is believed to be more in line with the Gulenists. Gul has been conciliatory, telling protesters their message was received and calling on the police to avoid excessive use of force. Erdogan’s defiance, on the other hand, is effectively splitting the AKP and damaging, perhaps ruining, his chances of running for an enhanced presidency in 2014.

Erdogan wants to leave his personal stamp on the Turkish republic, one as large perhaps as that of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But while many Turks feared that the volatile populist might replace Kemalism, and its legacy of Turkish nationalism and secularism, with Islamism and neo-Ottomanism, it turned out that Erdogan misunderstood his appeal, as he embraced Ataturk’s worst traits. Many Turks like the fact that Erdogan encouraged them to be proudly Muslim. But they don’t like being ruled by fiat.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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