Erdogan’s autocracy triggers mass reaction in Turkey
Prime minister’s pugnacious style allows no compromise or concession of error
Turkey’s prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by deputies Bulent Arinc (left) and Bekir Bozdag, at a news conference in Istanbul yesterday. Erdogan called for calm after a weekend of fierce anti-government protests, urging people not to be provoked by demonstrations he said had been organised by “extremist elements”. Photograph: Reuters
Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, has spent the past 10 years establishing himself as a sort of righteous, vengeful and paternalistic commissar occupying an almost unchallengeable position at the apex of the country’s political life. It is a measure of his success that, like the sultans of old who some say he resembles, he is the primary focus of protests shaking Istanbul and other cities.
Just as Erdogan put together an unprecedentedly successful urban working-class, agrarian and neo-Islamist voter coalition in three consecutive election victories, opposition to his allegedly oppressive rule is uniting the oddly assorted pro-western intelligentsia, old-school Kemalists and middle-class secularists, right-wing nationalists and the much-traduced Kurdish minority.
But his politically pugilistic, choleric style admits no compromise and concedes no error. Demanding an end to the demonstrations, he told Turkish television: “If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.”
The redevelopment of a park in Taksim Square, Istanbul, the spark for the protests, was being used as an excuse by “extremists”. The unrest, he said, was being stoked by the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP).
The CHP denies the charge. “The prime minister is more and more authoritarian, unfortunately,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the party’s leader, in February. “The sovereignty of fear is ubiquitous. No one can talk with ease on the telephone. Civil society is under pressure.”
A leading Istanbul businesswoman said: “The prime minister’s suggestions that those on the streets are only looters and provocateurs very much misrepresent the current situation as even the elderly in residential areas show their support by banging on pots and pans from their windows.
“The solidarity among the protesters aimed specifically at the prime minister exemplifies their frustration at his growing autocratic ambitions . . . While it is unlikely he will step down, he has over-reached his authority and now faces a more organised, more vocal opposition.”
Particular concern centres on Erdogan’s ill-disguised, Putin-esque plan to swap the prime minister’s office for that of the president in elections due next year. But first he wants to enhance the executive powers of the presidency – hence the divisive and so far inconclusive effort to forge a new constitution. He must also somehow push aside the incumbent, Abdullah Gul, a loyal crony who has become less subservient.
“Erdogan is looking to become a strong president, a new Ataturk,” said the writer and columnist Cengiz Aktar. “The economy, the administrative structure, it’s all heading towards a new centralisation. And at the centre is a person called Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP [the ruling Justice and Development party] is not a party any more, it is Erdogan’s apparatus. There is huge polarisation in this country.”
Erdogan has overseen rapid economic expansion, job creation and infrastructure strengthening, which has won him wide praise. But he leaves little to chance. His grip on power embraces all the institutions of state. The military, responsible for three past coups, has been politically emasculated in dubious show trials, such as the Sledgehammer proceedings of 2010.
The media are intimidated, with many journalists in jail. The judiciary is cowed, or so critics say. Criticism of Erdogan by the unions, the universities or civil society has become rare.
The AKP’s neo-Islamist outlook has become more noticeable as Erdogan’s power has grown. Istanbul residents have been upset by a ban on pavement cafe tables, where alcohol might be served, and by officious warnings about public displays of male-female affection.
Erdogan’s roots, in a devout Muslim upbringing in the tough, working-class Istanbul district of Kasimpasa, offer clues to his personality. After attending an Islamic school and Marmara University, he became a professional footballer before getting involved in politics. Elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he became leader of the neo-Islamist Welfare party and was subsequently jailed, briefly, for allegedly trying to subvert Turkey’s secular order.
In 2001, after the party was banned, Erdogan co-founded the AKP, which emerged as the largest party in the 2002 election. In 2003, after a bar on him holding public office was lifted, he became prime minister. For Erdogan, the exercise of power has become a habit. – (Guardian service)