Erdogan and the Protests Turkey's Stubborn Man on the Bosphorus
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the way to becoming the most successful leader of his country since Atatürk. But he has reacted to recent protests as a tone-deaf despot. It is a tragedy for him and his country.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often sought out influential opponents. First there was the secular elite that tried to thwart his bid to become mayor of Istanbul. Then there were the courts in Ankara, which tried to ban his conservative Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP). Finally, there were the generals, who had been in control since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the country, and whose power he broke.
After 10 years as prime minister of Turkey, Erdogan had so much power that, in the end, only one person could stop him: Erdogan himself.
Journalist Fiachra Gibbans aptly described Erdogan's political career in the Guardian recently as a "Shakespearean tragedy." The prime minister, who defied attempted coups and survived a court challenge, is now in trouble because of a few hundred trees in a city park. He is becoming the victim of his own hubris.
Looking back at the last few weeks of the Gezi Park revolt, there is one thing that is particularly disturbing: The way Erdogan has missed even the best opportunities to settle the conflict. And how he has outraged the protesters, who initially demonstrated merely to preserve Gezi Park on Taksim Square in Istanbul, through his implacability and the brutality of his police force.
A word of understanding or an appeasing gesture would likely have been enough to at least soften the uprising. Instead, Erdogan flew to Africa when the unrest began. Back in Turkey, he called the demonstrators "looters" and "terrorists," and he allowed the police to deal with them harshly. Still, the protests did not end. On the contrary, they expanded throughout the country. Only after almost two weeks of rebellion did Erdogan meet in Ankara with representatives of the protest movement. But even as he was promising dialogue, he sent the police to go after the demonstrators once again.
An Iron Fist
Insiders say that there have been discussions within the AKP over how to deal with the protests. Representatives of the moderate wing, including Turkish President Abdullah Gül, advised Erdogan to deescalate the conflict, they say. Moderates, however, were apparently unable to prevail against government hardliners. Erdogan is seeking to resolve the conflict in the same way he has resolved disputes throughout his life: with an iron fist.
Erdogan grew up in the rough Istanbul waterfront district of Kasimpasa, as the son of a fisherman from Anatolia. In the old Turkey, men of his background could count themselves lucky to be shining shoes in front of the Grand Hotel de Londres. But Erdogan was ambitious. He studied business administration and became involved with the Islamist Refah Party of Necmettin Erbakan. He acted as an agitator for the aging party leader, and he eventually became mayor of Istanbul. When Erbakan lost support within the party, Erdogan staged a coup against the old man. Together with Abdullah Gül, he founded the AKP in 2001 and, a year later, unexpectedly won the general election.
Erdogan is one of the most fascinating politicians of his time. His rise to power is stupendous, and so are at least some of his political successes. He has built Turkey, a country of crises and coups, into a regional power. He has modernized the economy and helped it achieve previously unheard of growth. And he is on the verge of settling a conflict that has tormented Turkey for three decades: the struggle with the Kurds in the country's southeast, which has cost the lives of tens of thousands. The leader of the Kurdish terrorist group PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, recently called upon his fighters to lay down their arms.
Erdogan appeared set to go down in history as the most successful Turkish prime minister since the country's founder, Atatürk. But now he is in the process of squandering the successes of more than a decade in the space of just a few weeks.
There is even growing discontent among Erdogan's supporters. The pro-government newspaper Zaman writes that Erdogan has done "tremendous damage" to the "national psyche." It now seems out of the question that, after 11 years as prime minister, he will be able to have himself declared president next year as he had planned.
But Erdogan himself doesn't seem willing to recognize his mistakes. In many respects, he has developed into precisely the type of autocratic ruler he had promised to replace upon taking office. He wants to control everything and relentlessly persecutes dissidents. Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world.
Last Sunday, Erdogan gathered hundreds of thousands of his supporters for a rally in Istanbul. His choice for the site for the rally was not accidental. He gave his speech on a field on the city's outskirts where Mehmet the Conqueror launched his attack on Constantinople in the 15th century.
A Confused Despot
Erdogan called upon his supporters to fight the "terrorists" demonstrating against his government in Taksim Square. In countries like the United States, where political conflicts are also sometimes waged with great intensity, new presidents insist, after each election, that they represent "all Americans," including those who did not vote for them.
Erdogan abandoned this notion long ago. Instead, he is rallying his supporters and dividing the country. On Sunday night, Erdogan supporters marched through Istanbul, hunting down regime critics.
It seems unclear whether Erdogan is truly aware of what he is saying and doing. He denounces the uprising against his government as a conspiracy by the foreign media and has the police arrest doctors who treat injured protesters. At times, Erdogan seems more like a confused despot than the democratically elected premier of one of the world's largest economies.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan