Turkey's protests and Erdogan's brutal crackdown: How long can defiant Prime Minister last?

Tough and combative, he physically embodies the modern country he has done so much to shape. But this week’s protests are his biggest test yet

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the symbol as well as the architect of modern Turkey as it has developed over the past decade. His rule followed 80 years of quasi-military rule enforced by army coups of great brutality, in which hundreds of thousands were jailed and tortured under regimes as cruel and oppressive as anything seen in Argentina and Brazil. Dissent was crushed and organisations as small as local chess clubs permanently banned.

It was Erdogan and his AK (Justice and Development) Party that ended the dominance of the old elite after 2002 with three successive election victories. As important, since opponents of military rule had won elections before only to be ousted or overruled by army commanders, the AK leaders succeeded in outmanoeuvring the generals to remove the threat of another military takeover. Only in the past five or six years has the possibility of the return of the army ceased to be an option in Turkey, though the shadow of what Turks call the “deep state” is still in evidence with periodic unexplained assassinations. On the back of stable civilian rule, Turkey has developed economically into the 17th largest economy in the world.

It is important to restate Erdogan’s achievements, in order to understand his failings and the causes of the protests that began in Taksim Square in central Istanbul, and have now swept across the country. His aggrieved tone of voice, as he flew into Istanbul airport at the end of a week of turmoil, conveyed a certain bewilderment on his part as he combined appeals for unity with denunciations of the protesters.

“They say I am prime minister of only 50 per cent,” he said, referring to the proportion of the votes he won in 2011. “It’s not true. We have served the whole of the 76 million [Turks] from the east to the west. Together we are Turkey. Together we are brothers.”

Analogies abound between Erdogan and foreign leaders who faced unexpected popular revolt after long and productive periods in power. Charles de Gaulle forced the army out of French politics and withdrew from Algeria, only to be rewarded with the May events of 1968. As with Erdogan, he might complain of people’s ingratitude, but mass demonstrations would not have ignited in France then, or in Turkey now, unless they could feed on widespread grievances against the government.

One of these is simply that Erdogan has been in power too long. Many younger Turks do not recall, and older Turks have forgotten, what it was like before his party took power in 2002. This means that Turks from all parts of the political spectrum, from gay rights campaigners to dissident but socially conservative Kurds, can come together to focus on what they dislike about Erdogan and the AK Party. There is nothing uniquely Turkish about this phenomenon. Lenin, who knew a lot about authoritarian rule, once said that “the best government in the world has only to be in power long enough for everybody to wish to remove it”. Part of the animus against Erdogan is explained by resentment against just such a government with its ever-growing hubris and sensitivity to criticism.

Other failings of Erdogan and those around him are more specifically Turkish. For instance, he can be lauded for ending the threat of military rule, but he is accused of retaining many of its instruments of power. There are more journalists in jail in Turkey than in China and Iran combined. Editors are held responsible for any article appearing in their publication critical of the government. In one case, a Kurdish editor was sentenced to 166 years in prison for just such an offence, though this was later reduced to 20 years.

One human rights activist noted that there is “still no clear distinction between expression of an opinion and membership of a terrorist organisation”. No wonder Turkish liberals are dismayed by the degree to which Erdogan appears to have found it convenient to adopt the mechanisms of repression used by its predecessors. “The AKP had been on the periphery of political life and is now at the centre,” explained Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “They decided to adopt the reformist process and enjoy life.”

Erdogan remains the physical embodiment of the modern Turkey which he has done so much to shape. A tall, well-built man who used to be a professional footballer, he gives an impression of being tough and combative. These characteristics appeal to Turks, as does his piety: he was famous for praying before each football game. He has always had a charismatic presence and his party has benefited enormously from his personality cult. This is in keeping with Turkish tradition, since the adulation given to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish state, is exceeded in few countries in the world outside of North Korea. Erdogan’s critics point to other signs of excessive and regal enjoyment of power, such as a son’s wedding attended by Silvio Berlusconi in his heyday and a daughter’s nuptials at which Pervez Musharraf was one of the guests.

This was strange company for a populist hero such as Erdogan, born the son of a coastguard officer in 1954 on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. The family moved to Istanbul when he was 13 years old, and he sold lemonade and sesame buns to earn extra money. He attended an Islamic school, and took a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University while at the same time playing professional football. As a member of the Welfare Party, later banned, he became mayor of Istanbul in 1994. There he won a reputation as honest and effective, before being jailed for four months in 1998 for reciting an Islamic poem.

In 2001, he helped found the AK Party, succeeding the Virtue Party which had also been banned by the courts as “anti-secular”. The AK won a landslide victory in 2002 on a centre-right, mildly Islamic platform which was pro‑capitalist and pro-Western. Its economics were neo-liberal with state assets being sold off, and the AK accepted an IMF programme of economic stabilisation. Its long frustrated intention has been to enter the EU, which appeared inside and outside Turkey as a guarantee of political and economic respectability. Equally important were good relations with the US as a guarantee against a military coup. This appeared as a genuine threat to Erdogan until quite recently, explaining the crackdown on the Ergenekon network which is accused of uniting army officers, media, judiciary and academics in a plot to stir up trouble to justify a coup.

Protesters in Taksim have every reason to see Erdogan as becoming more authoritarian. He did not use his political capital to deal with the Kurdish question until recently, and there is still a question over how far he will make the concessions to Kurds on civil and political rights sufficient to end the simmering rebellion in the south-east of the country. The Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK are withdrawing into Iraq under an understanding between their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the Turkish state. Erdogan may not have done enough to conciliate the Kurds, but he is probably the only Turkish leader strong enough to make peace.

Erdogan has always had the reputation of something of a political gambler. He remains a pious, populist nationalist of great political skill whose very intransigence many Turks find attractive. But he and the AK are more skilful in domestic politics than in the politics of the region as a whole. Once Erdogan could claim to have good relations with Iran, Iraq and Syria, but he is now suffering from the backwash of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Erdogan bet on the war ending quickly as in Libya, only to find Turkey caught in a conflict that could fester for years.

What will be the long-term effect of the protests? They may torpedo Erdogan’s ambition to rewrite the constitution so more power flows to the presidency and then stand for the presidency himself. Allegations that the prime minister and the AK have a secret plot to turn Turkey into a religious Islamic state have always lacked substance. The protests may have a long-term impact in frightening foreign capital inflows and thereby puncturing the economic boom that has underpinned the AK’s popularity. As for Erdogan, the next few weeks will show if he will respond to protests by increasing or reducing the authoritarianism of his rule.

A Life in Brief

Born: 26 February 1954, Istanbul.

Family: His father was a member of the Turkish Coast Guard. Married Emine Gulbaran in 1978; they have four children.

Education: Istanbul Religious Vocational High School; business administration at Marmara University.

Career: Joined the National Turkish Student Union anti-communist group at university. Joined the Islamist Welfare Party, 1980. Elected to parliament but was barred from taking his seat on a technicality, 1991. Mayor of Istanbul, 1994-1998. Served four months in prison for reciting a poem and was forced to resign as mayor, 1999. Established the AK Party, 2001. Prime Minister, 2003-present.

He says: “Paramount is the need to secure human rights.”

They say: “Erdogan is not authoritarian. He makes decisions, and he get things done.” Nursuna Memecan, AK Party MP

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