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Turkey's tumultuous week does little to rattle 'bulldozer' Erdogan

Prime Minister Erdogan decried antigovernment protesters as 'vagabonds' and 'extremists.' Critics acknowledge his success in driving Turkey's spectacular growth, but say he has become autocratic.

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Tunis June 6.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

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For a man facing what some describe as the most potent threat of his political career, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly seems confident.

After almost a week of nationwide protests calling for his resignation, he went ahead with a scheduled four-day trip to North Africa. 

“By the time I return, this issue will most likely have reached an end,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters in Morocco June 3. 

What started as a small sit-in against the redevelopment of a park next to Istanbul’s Taksim Square has escalated into a mass outpouring of antigovernment anger. Erdogan, however, has so far refused to give an inch. 

He dismissed demonstrators as “vagabonds” and “extremists,” blaming the unrest on the “scourge” of Twitter. He vowed to press ahead with plans to revamp Taksim Square, including replacing four-acre Gezi Park with a replica of an old Ottoman barracks building to house shops and apartments. And he further enraged the mainly secular demonstrators by reiterating his plan to construct a mosque in Taksim – which, along with the Ataturk Cultural Center facing it, is considered a symbol of the secular, Western-oriented reforms instituted by Turkey’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Building a mosque in Taksim Square has long been a goal of Turkey’s Islamists, “in part because it’s the epicenter of [Istanbul’s] secular nightlife, but also because there’s a gigantic cathedral that’s visible from there. There’s a church, but no mosque,” says Jenny White, an anthropologist at Boston University who has studied Islamic movements in Turkey. 

“Does the whole Taksim Refurbishment Project boil down to a kind of score-settling contest in Turkey’s culture wars?” asked Can Erimtan, a Middle East analyst and historian in a recent article in Istanbul Gazette. 

That’s one take. Others attribute Erdogan’s intransigence to an unassailable belief in his own judgment, fostered by unrivaled power.

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“If they call a person who is a servant of the nation a dictator, I can find nothing to tell them,” Erdogan said Sunday. “I have no concern but to serve my 76 million citizens.”

“He has the typical syndrome of the lonely autocrat,” says Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “He decides by himself, he doesn’t consult, and he cannot evaluate the consequences of his actions.”

Ironically, this follows Kemalism, the authoritarian, nationalist, rigidly secular ideology inspired by Ataturk that Erdogan has spent his career fighting, Mr. Aktar says. “He’s behaving as a genuine and authentic Kemalist. It’s top down: I decide and you support, and what I decide is good for you.”

Social engineering?

In recent months, Erdogan has made pronouncements that, to many Turks, smack of social engineering. Last year, while demanding school reforms, he said he wanted to raise “pious generations.” He also declared the yogurt drink ayran the national beverage – a title traditionally given to the alcoholic drink raki.

Erdogan has humble origins. He grew up in a conservative family in a working class Istanbul suburb and played semiprofessional soccer as a young man. After turning to politics, he climbed steadily through the ranks of Turkey’s Islamist political movement.

“He was very charismatic. He was also single-minded,” recalls Ms. White, who interviewed and shadowed Erdogan after he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994. “He’s like a bulldozer; he takes over every situation and is absolutely strategic and pragmatic. I can’t imagine that that’s changed.”

As mayor, he gained a reputation as a competent administrator who improved the city. Then, and in his first years as prime minister, he won over liberals by swearing loyalty to a secular system of government. Since its founding in 2001, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has insisted on the label “social conservative” rather than “Islamist.”

Ayse Onal, a journalist and onetime friend of Erdogan, was one of those won over. She was attracted by Erdogan’s opposition to the military – self-appointed guardians of Ataturk’s legacy – and his departure from the Kemalists’ hostility to Turkey’s minorities. Western governments were also won over.

The military was long the antagonist of political Islam, indirectly forcing the country’s first Islamist government from power in 1997. But Erdogan has broken its grip, facilitating trials targeting top military officials for allegedly plotting coups. Despite limited progress, the government is in peace negotiations with the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party. 

Today, Erdogan might be right to be confident. He has presided over a decade of sensational economic progress. Per capita income and gross domestic product have soared, and earlier this year, the country finished repaying the International Monetary Fund, ending a 52-year relationship. Despite a slowdown, Turkey recently achieved investment-grade status from two ratings agencies. National debt has dropped from 78 percent of GDP to about 40 percent today.

The growth has spurred a boom in infrastructure projects and international prestige – and it has been reflected at the ballot box. AKP has won each election with ever-larger majorities, netting nearly 50 percent in 2011.

“Almost half of society voted for him, and that power has tainted him,” says Ms. Onal, who is no longer in contact with Erdogan. “He lost his mind and his sense of justice. He became one man operating on his own.” 

Erdogan is unlikely to be able to continue like that now. “People will take to the streets now every time he makes a unilateral action,” Aktar says. “They no longer fear him.”

This week, on the Ataturk Cultural Center – the building Erdogan wants to destroy – protesters draped a banner that stated simply, “Shut up Tayyip.” 

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