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.
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.Â
â€śBy the time I return, this issue will most likely have reached an end,â€ť Mr. Erdogan told reporters in Morocco June 3.Â
What started as a small sit-in against the redevelopment of a park next to Istanbulâ€™s Taksim Square has escalated into a mass outpouring of antigovernment anger. Erdogan, however, has so far refused to give an inch.Â
He dismissed demonstrators as â€śvagabondsâ€ť and â€śextremists,â€ť blaming the unrest on the â€śscourgeâ€ť 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 â€“ which, along with the Ataturk Cultural Center facing it, is considered a symbol of the secular, Western-oriented reforms instituted by Turkeyâ€™s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.Â
Building a mosque in Taksim Square has long been a goal of Turkeyâ€™s Islamists, â€śin part because itâ€™s the epicenter of [Istanbulâ€™s] secular nightlife, but also because thereâ€™s a gigantic cathedral thatâ€™s visible from there. Thereâ€™s a church, but no mosque,â€ť says Jenny White, an anthropologist at Boston University who has studied Islamic movements in Turkey.Â
â€śDoes the whole Taksim Refurbishment Project boil down to a kind of score-settling contest in Turkeyâ€™s culture wars?â€ť asked Can Erimtan, a Middle East analyst and historian in a recent article in Istanbul Gazette.Â
Thatâ€™s one take. Others attribute Erdoganâ€™s intransigence to an unassailable belief in his own judgment, fostered by unrivaled power.
â€śIf they call a person who is a servant of the nation a dictator, I can find nothing to tell them,â€ť Erdogan said Sunday. â€śI have no concern but to serve my 76 million citizens.â€ť
â€śHe has the typical syndrome of the lonely autocrat,â€ť says Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. â€śHe decides by himself, he doesnâ€™t consult, and he cannot evaluate the consequences of his actions.â€ť
Ironically, this follows Kemalism, the authoritarian, nationalist, rigidly secular ideology inspired by Ataturk that Erdogan has spent his career fighting, Mr. Aktar says. â€śHeâ€™s behaving as a genuine and authentic Kemalist. Itâ€™s top down: I decide and you support, and what I decide is good for you.â€ť
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 â€śpious generations.â€ť He also declared the yogurt drink ayran the national beverage â€“ 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 Turkeyâ€™s Islamist political movement.
â€śHe was very charismatic. He was also single-minded,â€ť recalls Ms. White, who interviewed and shadowed Erdogan after he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994. â€śHeâ€™s like a bulldozer; he takes over every situation and is absolutely strategic and pragmatic. I canâ€™t imagine that thatâ€™s changed.â€ť
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 â€śsocial conservativeâ€ť rather than â€śIslamist.â€ť
Ayse Onal, a journalist and onetime friend of Erdogan, was one of those won over. She was attracted by Erdoganâ€™s opposition to the military â€“ self-appointed guardians of Ataturkâ€™s legacy â€“ and his departure from the Kemalistsâ€™ hostility to Turkeyâ€™s minorities. Western governments were also won over.
The military was long the antagonist of political Islam, indirectly forcing the countryâ€™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.Â
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 â€“ and it has been reflected at the ballot box. AKP has won each election with ever-larger majorities, netting nearly 50 percent in 2011.
â€śAlmost half of society voted for him, and that power has tainted him,â€ť says Ms. Onal, who is no longer in contact with Erdogan. â€śHe lost his mind and his sense of justice. He became one man operating on his own.â€ťÂ
Erdogan is unlikely to be able to continue like that now. â€śPeople will take to the streets now every time he makes a unilateral action,â€ť Aktar says. â€śThey no longer fear him.â€ť
This week, on the Ataturk Cultural Center â€“ the building Erdogan wants to destroy â€“ protesters draped a banner that stated simply, â€śShut up Tayyip.â€ťÂ