Turkey protests: Erdoğan is Turkey's Mrs Thatcher - and he's not for turning either

His belief that he can talk down to the Turkish people doesn't sit well with an empowered electorate who have their own views and want to listen critically

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The protests and demonstrations currently engulfing Turkey have several causes, and the protesters come from various sectors of society.  They are united less by a clear set of aims than by some basic principles.  The most obvious is freedom of expression, but another is the importance of dialogue in public life, of proper debate before important decisions are made. 

Yesterday, away from the cameras, a protester and a policeman decided to stop throwing things at each other and talk, a dialogue that eventually reduced the policeman to tears: ‘why are we doing this to each other?’ they seemed to be saying.

When the politics of other places hits the headlines we scramble for ways of making sense of it, either relying on what we know about political logic or political theory, or by making prosaic comparisons with what we already know. Machiavelli or Burke could tell us a thing or two about the plight of the current Turkish prime minister - how he needs to read Burke on the nature of representation! – but so can the last days of Margaret Thatcher; she had won three elections and been prime minister for ten years when she resigned, and the downfall of this undeniably popular leader was brought about partly by what political scientists somewhere probably call ‘policy overstretch’, embodied in the poll tax, and partly by her manner, embodied in the cry of ‘no no no’ in the House of Commons over Europe.  These displays of intransigence were fatal to her authority, and once she was gone, they were no longer seen as aberrations: everything could be reinterpreted in the light of them, even by her own supporters. As Auberon Waugh said at the time, ‘you have done things that are necessary, now please go away’.

The one thing about which judgments did not shift was her style, hectoring and monologic to the end. These two words – there are many more – also describe the manner of Recep Tayip Erdoğan.  Erdoğan’s background is that of preacher and semi-professional footballer, so he grew to maturity learning both to talk to an audience that won’t answer back and to shout at those on his own team.  All politicians probably need both of these qualities to a degree, but in Erdoğan’s case it is the lynchpin of his authority. He gave up football in 1982, so shouting across a field became shouting down to it, and it has gone on for two decades. Listen outside a mosque on a Friday in Istanbul and the rhythm if not the volume of the delivery could be Erdoğan’s at a political rally.

Mrs. Thatcher’s background was non-conformist and you might wonder what, in a secular republic, that makes Erdoğan’s.  Here it is worth remembering that the Turkish republic is laiciste, not secularist; there is no separation of church and state – Islam has no ‘church’ – but rather the organisation of religion and religious instruction under state tutelage. The salaries of Turkey’s 70,000 imams are paid by the public purse. Erdoğan attended one of the Imam Hatip Schools in Istanbul, one of whose overt purposes is the training of preachers (‘Hatip’ means ‘one who is capable of delivering the Friday sermon’). These schools have an intriguing history. After the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, they were closed, but reopened in 1948, since when their status and prestige has fluctuated. When Erdoğan graduated in 1973 about 30,000 pupils attended them.  By 1997 the figure was 500,000. In 1971, new legislation had allowed graduates to attend university without needing to take supplementary courses at secular institutions.

Erdoğan studied business administration, and so added a third prong to his communicative style. As prime minster his forte has been talking in robustly delivered clichés to middle-aged women, rousing crowds of swarthy and/or pious men, wiping the floor of the Turkish parliament with his rhetorically challenged opponents, and telling some but not all businessmen – notably from oil-rich middle-East states - that he will let them do pretty much what they want.

His belief that he can say what he likes about anything has led him to claim that the true Turkish national drink is not Raki but Ayran, a watered-down yoghurt, and at meeting of construction firm workers in 2011 to call important archaeological finds delaying the building of new metro stations ‘a few pots and pans’. Only the other day, after the protests began, he was on television saying that 'I was sitting in my office in Dolmabahce, I have seen the boats coming from Kädıkoy [the district of Istanbul on the Eastern side of the Bosphorous]. I must say that I don't approve of the way the women are dressed’. 

He has come unstuck when confronting audiences with a tendency to have their own views about things, to want to discuss or listen critically: farmers, whose centuries-old seed banks he is sacrificing to American agribusinesses, students, at least those who read European books, and members of the European Council in Strasbourg, before whose bemused members he made one his more aggressive speeches. Behaviour like this rarely gains one new friends, though when at Davos in 2009 he walked off the stage rather than discuss with Shimon Peres of Israel, the Islamic Republic of Iran rewarded him with honorary citizenship of the city of Tehran.

Now there are more people answering back, doing it more imaginatively, mentioning the prime minister by name and addressing him directly. One of the misfortunes of Turkish oppositional culture since well before Erdoğan has been the spectacle of otherwise educated people chanting monosyllables in unison into the air. That has also been a feature of the current conflict but the greater range of groups involved has brought with it more varied styles of address.  In the face of Erdoğan’s desire that all women should bear at least three children, they have been posting photos of themselves with ‘Erdoğan, do you want three children like this?’ Recip Tayip Erdoğan has become Recop Tazyik Gazdoğan (cop means truncheon, tazyik means high-pressure water).  The name of the Gezi park has been used too.  ‘Gezi’ means trip, so that when Erdoğan went to Morocco the cry went up, ‘biz geziden cık dedik, o geziye git anladı’: ‘when we said ‘leave Gezi’, he heard ‘go on a trip’’. 

He went to Morocco, but by the time he returns the voices calling, not shouting, for him to go away again may well be louder and more frequent. If it came to it one wonders where he might go. Tehran perhaps? They do like a drink there though, and the women...

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