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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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“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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