The Strong Man at His Weakest

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has never had more support -- or a bigger challenge to his rule.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

ISTANBUL – "Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan!" chanted supporters of the Turkish prime minister, as a friend and I made our way through the absolutely mammoth crowd that descended on the Kazlicesme area of Istanbul last Sunday to hear their leader speak. As with Erdogan’s rally in the capital, Ankara, the day before, the people who turned out here, many of whom were decked out in scarves, T-shirts, and masks supporting the prime minister, vastly outnumbered the Gezi Park protesters who have captured global headlines. Young, old, well-to-do, decidedly modest, religious, and secular all declared their devotion to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan. When the prime minister surveyed the 295,000 souls who had come to express their devotion and thundered, "Taksim Square is not Turkey!" it was a vindication of his vision, his economic policies, and the strength of his leadership. Yet the irony was that at Kazlicesme, Erdogan’s demonstration of strength revealed his profound weakness and political vulnerability.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Turkey knows something about the Erdogan mystique. He’s the tough guy from the Kasimpasa neighborhood — literally and figuratively down a steep slope from Taksim Square — who has remade Turkey over the last decade. For the media personalities parachuted into a maelstrom of tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray, Turkey under Erdogan is best described as an economic and political success story, a "model" of a "Muslim democracy and prosperity" for the Arab world. But Erdogan’s reservoir of support is based on a much more tangible set of factors. The fact that he presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world — it was the 16th in the 1990s — is less important than the fact that more people are participating in it than ever before. There are still fabulously wealthy and terribly poor people in Turkey, but the overall gap between the two has narrowed. That is no small accomplishment. In other high-growth countries like Brazil, China, and Russia, for example, that gap has grown. 

Consistent with the kind of grassroots work that the AKP’s precursor, the Welfare Party, perfected in the 1980s and 1990s, Erdogan — the guy who used to sell the Turkish version of the bagel, called simit, from a cart on the street — has focused much of his time in office on improving the lives of ordinary Turks. In places where transportation was thin, health care was basic, and government services were non-existent, the prime minister has paved roads, built airports, established "Erdogan-care," and forced local governments to be responsive to their constituents. As a result, Kasimpasa is not so rough-and-tumble anymore and the people there love him for it.

Economics does not explain everything, however. Erdogan, whose political skills are unrivaled in Turkey, has an innate ability to appeal to his core constituents and, until not too long ago, beyond. His fiery and emotional rhetoric gets most of the attention, but it is framed around a folksy common sense that resonates across the country. When a law restricting the sale of alcohol to certain times and places came under fire from secular elites, many average Turks may have winced at Erdogan’s oblique reference to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his deputy Ismet Inonu were alcoholics, but they also could not figure out what all the fuss was about. For them, the fact that liquor can be sold around schools and mosques at any time of day to anyone of any age offends a basic sense of right and wrong — to say nothing of piety. 

Nothing reinforced the wholesome values of Erdogan and his constituency more than the pedestal upon which the policemen were placed at the Kazlicesme rally. At the center of the city, where the black-clad and helmeted riot police were busy expending copious amounts of tear gas against their fellow Turks, the AKP rally was a law-and-order love fest. When police moved about on the streets adjacent to the site, the throngs parted ways and cheered for them. Young officers who had been brought into Istanbul for the event could not help but blush. The cops were relaxed, even chit-chatty. Unlike their colleagues who were engaged in a pitched battle in and around Istiklal Street at about the same time, the biggest problem for the police at the AKP rally was helping two foreigners find an outlet to recharge dying or dead iPhones.

Of course, Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves in part because his formal, parliamentary opposition has nothing to offer Turks. One of the many ironies of the last three weeks has been the indignation of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) over the prime minister’s authoritarian drift. Hardly a paragon of democratic governance itself, the CHP can count on the support of a hard-core base that represents the Kemalist elite. Their commitment to a diverse and democratic Turkey is suspect, at best. The party of Ataturk is a relic of the past and, like the variety of lesser parties who have shown up in Taksim Square to show their colors, they appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate.  

For Erdogan and his supporters, the rallies in Ankara and Istanbul only reinforced the AKP’s mastery of the political arena. It was hard not to feel this energy and vibe in the carnival-like atmosphere of Kazlicesme. As one homemade placard declared: "Today is Turkey’s Day!" Yet there was a dark underside to Erdogan’s demonstration of power. The man holding the sign could have been appealing for Turkish unity, but in the context of the last three weeks, he was advancing the idea that Erdogan has consistently perpetuated — the notion that the Gezi Park protesters were somehow not good Turks. 

One of the prime minister’s great accomplishments — and a source of his mystique in Europe and the United States during his early years in power — was his efforts to forge a Turkey that was (all at the same time) more Muslim, more European, and more democratic without losing that fiercely held sense of "Turkishness." For other politicians, the contradictions in this would be too difficult to manage politically, but not for Erdogan. What better agent of change than the physically imposing, wear-his-emotions-on-his-sleeve, confident embodiment of the new Turkish man to bring the country out of its self-imposed insularity. Erdogan held out hope that the debilitating war over Turkish identity that had been at the heart of the country’s political drama since the republic’s founding might come to an end, and he rode a broad coalition of Turks back to power in 2007, and again in 2011.

The first (and until Gezi Park, the only) political crisis of Erdogan’s tenure came in the late spring of 2007, when the prime minister appealed to democracy, a sense of fairness, and widely shared sentiments about a new Turkey — giving him a victory over the military, which had sought to block Abdullah Gul from becoming president. There were many Turks who were deeply worried that having a president from Turkey’s Islamist party would alter the country irrevocably, but Erdogan appealed to the Turks’ collective better angels. This was the Turkish leader at his zenith.

Almost exactly six years later, Erdogan has done the exact opposite, summoning the worst instincts of Turkish political culture and sharpening its divide. This strategy — identifying your opponents as extremists, "marginals," and/or foreign agents — is the hallmark of leaders who have lost the ability to reach the kind of broad constituencies that assure political success. Slashing and burning as Erdogan has been doing shores up the base and suggests that he is still very much in command, but at a significant price. The destruction of the squatter camp in Gezi Park last Saturday night was an awesome show of force, but not of political power. A secure leader would have let the park become a smelly mess until the hippie-dippies who took it over drifted away. Yet for Erdogan, every day that the protesters were out in the streets was a festering reminder that not all Turks were buying what he and his party were selling, which held out the prospect that more and more people might join the demonstrators. Not necessarily in Gezi Park, but nevertheless join them politically.

Erdogan may not be in danger of losing an election, but he has sharpened the divides to such an extent that there are now two Turkeys — one that thinks he is evil and another that thinks he is benevolent. And in order to keep the large numbers in the former camp in line, he will have to resort to authoritarian measures. Erdogan has already done an effective job intimidating the traditional Turkish media, but at great cost to journalists who have been openly mocked throughout the Gezi crisis. Now he has set his sights on social media. Early on, Erdogan referred to Twitter as a "menace" or a "curse." Now his justice and interior ministers are teaming up to write regulations that would outlaw what the government considers provocative tweets. If there was ever an indication of a leader’s weakness, it is to try and roll back the freedom of expression that people have found online. Comparisons to Tahrir Square are met with visceral denunciations among AKP supporters and Egyptians who jealously guard their uprising, but Erdogan’s effort to control Twitter is reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak’s own failed campaign against bloggers, Facebook, and SMS text messaging.

Erdogan has also engaged in the crude and absurd in an increasingly panicked effort to roll back open dissent. Turkish police rounded up about 100 activists in Istanbul, Ankara, and Eskisehir for instigating protests. The public prosecutor declared the possession of swim goggles — an innocent tool for protecting eyes from tear gas canisters and the toxic brew that comes out of police water cannons — to be an offense tantamount to terrorism. On Tuesday evening, the Interior Ministry announced that the original "Standing Man," the performance artist Erdem Gunduz, might be charged with "resisting police without resistance." When one adds to all this the increasingly unhinged pronouncements of government ministers about foreign plots, the American Enterprise Institute, "interest rate lobbies," Jews, and the foreign media, a more complex picture of Turkish politics emerges in which leaders are in fear of losing command.

The fact that Erdogan is actually weak may come as a surprise to those who have felt his wrath, or be dismissed as wishful thinking among those who revere him. In the intensity of the past three weeks, it has not dawned on Turks why a leader who is allegedly so strong needs to call rallies of the party faithful — more are planned for the coming week in Kayseri, Erzurum, and Samsun — to prove that he is strong.

Turkey is at an interesting and high-stakes moment, but political activists seem to be waiting on the sideline for something to happen. Erdogan has, in an unintended way, given them a narrative with which to challenge him politically — something along the lines of "no to authoritarianism, yes to democracy." But if they want to change the trajectory of Turkish politics, they should make haste, because the strong man is at his weakest now.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, was published in June.

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