By Simon Tisdall
The Guardian, Wed 24 Oct 2012
The PM appears to be cementing his grip on power, telling the nation it has never had it so good. But the war in Syria, an economic dip and the Kurdish question may be his undoing.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in bullish mood. Hailed by supporters as the country’s greatest statesman since the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s prime minister was addressing a recent congress of his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP).
For more than two hours Erdogan pounded out his message, made self-serving comparisons with the past, and listed his achievements. According to Erdogan, echoing the former British prime minister Harold Macmillan, Turks have never had it so good.
“Before we came to power [in 2002], there was no economic stability, no safety, no democracy in this country,” Erdogan said. “The era of coups in this country will never return again … In a country where the majority is Muslim, we let democracy rule in its most advanced form and became an example for all Muslim countries.”
This is not how the 50% of Turks who did not back the AKP in last year’s elections see it. “Erdogan is very authoritarian now. He’s too sure of himself. His attitudes are very dangerous for Turkey and for the world,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy leader of the opposition CHP.
“We are witnessing the creation of a cult of personality,” said Milliyet columnist and media activist Kadri Gürsel. “Erdogan is becoming an elected sultan. The party congress was a one-man show … He thinks he is the only person who can design Turkey’s destiny. He suffers from a hubris syndrome.”
Not so, said Nursuna Memecan, an AKP MP and Erdogan friend. “Erdogan is not authoritarian. He is detail-oriented, a micro-manager … In our part of the world, you can’t rely on delegating. So he delegates, then he oversees,” she said. “In a period of reform, you have to take the lead. He makes decisions – and he get things done.”
Like him or loathe him, both supporters and detractors agree Erdogan dominates Turkey’s political scene. To his fans, he is a dynamic, modernising force. To opponents, he is divisive, even threatening. “The AKP is not a party any more. It is Erdogan’s apparatus. There is huge polarisation in this country,” said journalist and writer Cengiz Aktar.
Who and what Erdogan really is – dictator or democrat, visionary or villain, swaggering bully or charismatic reformer – matters more than ever these days, and not just to Turkey’s nearly 80 million people.
But every bit as important is the question of how much longer Erdogan can maintain his grip after almost a decade in power. Problems are crowding in, and for the first time in years, the prime minister looks vulnerable.
As the Arab spring unfolded across the Middle East, Erdogan initially took credit as an exemplar and guide. Muslim Turkey’s secular democracy, with one foot in the west and one in the Middle East, was held up as a model. When he toured Egypt and Tunisia last year, Erdogan was hailed as a hero.
Syrian civil war
But the Syrian civil war has dealt a rude blow to his cherished concept of Turkish regional leadership. Erdogan’s attempts to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to choose reform over repression were flatly rejected, a rebuff he took personally. His subsequent outspoken demands that Assad step down have been ignored.
“Erdogan underestimated Assad’s staying power,” said Fuat Keyman, director of the Istanbul Policy Centre. “As it stands, the Syrian crisis is very dangerous, not just for Turkey but also because it could spread to Lebanon and Jordan … The longer Syria goes on, the worse it is for Erdogan.”
Erdogan has come a long way from a devout Muslim upbringing in the tough, working-class Istanbul district of Kasimpasa. After attending an Islamic school and Marmara University, he became a professional footballer before getting involved in politics. Elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he became leader of the neo-Islamist Welfare party and was subsequently jailed, briefly, for allegedly trying to subvert Turkey’s secular order.
In 2001, after the Welfare party was banned, Erdogan helped found the AKP on a platform of jobs, better services and fairness for Turkey’s urban and rural masses. The AKP emerged as the largest party in the 2002 election. In 2003, after a bar on him holding public office was lifted, Erdogan became prime minister.
He made a hesitant start. He fought off legal attempts to ban the AKP. He struggled to maintain friendly ties with the US during the Iraq invasion. His party was accused of attempting to “Islamise” Turkish society, for example, by relaxing the ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves. Turkey’s EU membership bid was humiliatingly blocked by France and Germany.
But through a mixture of toughness and calibrated moderation, Erdogan survived. In the years that followed, his grip on power gradually extended to encompass all of Turkey’s institutions.
His political ally, former foreign minister Abdullah Gül, was installed as president. Opposition parties splintered under the AKP onslaught. A once-hostile judiciary is now wholly under his sway, or so his critics claim. The media is either supportive, or intimidated into silence, say leading journalists. And the once powerful military, at the heart of Turkey’s shadowy “deep state”, has been neutralised as a political force, not least through this year’s so-called Sledgehammer trial of hundreds of alleged army coup plotters.
Erdogan, barred from standing for a fourth term, is widely expected to seek the presidency in 2014, but only after he has enacted a new constitution that would endow what is at present a largely ceremonial post with new powers.
For Erdogan’s idea to work, the hitherto loyal Gül must step aside, or agree to act as powerless prime minister – a swap similar to that made by Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin in Russia. Indeed, critics often liken Erdogan to Putin, a comparison that is decidedly uncomplimentary, and meant to be.
For Turkey’s liberal middle classes, the pro-western intelligentsia, old school Kemalists and the rightwing nationalists who comprise the fractured opposition, Erdogan’s plan amounts to a de facto “constitutional coup”.
“For Erdogan, getting elected president is no problem. He’s popular. It’s a piece of cake,” said a former newspaper editor. “His problem is how to extend the powers of the presidency. He needs to change the constitution. But he is short of the two-thirds majority he needs in parliament.
“Probably [Erdogan’s] plan will fail. So if there is no change, he has to ensure the new PM will do what he says. The problem with that is that Abdullah Gül may not do what Erdogan wants. There are signs of a widening gap between the two.”
Erdogan’s grip on power may also be undermined by the economy. Average per capita income has trebled since 2002 and an ambitious programme of public investment in roads, housing, schools and infrastructure has fed a booming economy and his own popularity. But output has begun to fall.
“If the economy goes down, everything will change,” one analyst predicted.
Another vexed issue is the Kurdish problem, which Erdogan promised to solve but which appears more acute than ever. This year has recorded an upsurge in Kurdistan Workers’ party attacks on targets in south-east Turkey and while Erdogan hints at resumed talks, the nascent peace process that collapsed last year is effectively moribund.
Meanwhile, thousands of elected Kurdish politicians, journalists, academics and activists have been jailed under sweeping, catch-all anti-terror legislation, and hundreds of Kurdish prisoners are on hunger strike, according to Ihsan Kagar of the Turkish Human Rights Association. For all his bluster, Erdogan appears to have no answers.
Suspicions also persist about Erdogan’s declared ambition of raising a “pious generation”, about the AKP’s links to the Fethullah Gülen movement, an influential Islamist NGO, and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza. Critics insist his secret aim is to overturn Turkey’s secular tradition and create an Islamist state. Supporters respond that if this were the case, he is being very slow about it. Such tensions are more about class than religion, they say.
“People who say such things are just trying to find ways to criticise him,” said Nursuna Memecan. “He wants to include people, and the privileged groups don’t like that. They are taking time getting used to sitting next to people from Anatolia smelling of cows. So they create rumours that Erdogan is a dictator and must be stopped.”
Further question marks surround his health. He underwent an operation for an intestinal problem last year, but the nature of his illness and his current state of health are matters for conjecture. Those who have seen him up close say he looks tired and older than his 58 years.
All the same it would be a big mistake to suggest the Erdogan era is drawing to a close – not yet at least. “We are talking about the most powerful politician in Turkey since Ataturk,” said Kadri Gursel. “He is aggressive. He follows a policy of divide and rule. He is a populist. The poor urban classes like his style. His followers are Sunni, conservative, nationalist and from the same social background as him. Erdogan is a street-fighter. He is a survivor. And he wins.”