Shadow Government

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Calling on Obama to call Erdogan

We are witnessing a classic political mistake stir unrest in an otherwise tranquil Turkey: letting political popularity inflate one’s ego to the point that you think it is you that people like, instead of your ideas. Unless Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan does an about-face in his response to recent protests, he risks an unraveling ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

We are witnessing a classic political mistake stir unrest in an otherwise tranquil Turkey: letting political popularity inflate one's ego to the point that you think it is you that people like, instead of your ideas. Unless Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan does an about-face in his response to recent protests, he risks an unraveling of support for him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), despite all they have done to propel Turkey forward.

As a vital ally and key power in a region filled with turmoil, this should be of concern to all Americans. It is in America's best interest for President Obama to utilize the immense soft power of the executive branch and privately counsel his friend on how best to respond to community engagement.

Erdogan and AKP have risen to heights of support not seen in recent times in Turkey. They came to power tapping into popular resentment against restrictions on individual freedoms, such as the ability for women to wear headscarves in schools and public buildings imposed by decades of secularist rule. In response, the Turkish people gave Erdogan and AKP unprecedented results at the ballot box.

We are witnessing a classic political mistake stir unrest in an otherwise tranquil Turkey: letting political popularity inflate one’s ego to the point that you think it is you that people like, instead of your ideas. Unless Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan does an about-face in his response to recent protests, he risks an unraveling of support for him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), despite all they have done to propel Turkey forward.

As a vital ally and key power in a region filled with turmoil, this should be of concern to all Americans. It is in America’s best interest for President Obama to utilize the immense soft power of the executive branch and privately counsel his friend on how best to respond to community engagement.

Erdogan and AKP have risen to heights of support not seen in recent times in Turkey. They came to power tapping into popular resentment against restrictions on individual freedoms, such as the ability for women to wear headscarves in schools and public buildings imposed by decades of secularist rule. In response, the Turkish people gave Erdogan and AKP unprecedented results at the ballot box.

Given the opportunity to lead, AKP has delivered. The economy has boomed, with per capita income tripling to more than $10,000. The nation has never been closer to reconciling with its Kurdish population after decades of strife. Turkey’s standing in the world has risen as a result. By speaking boldly on regional issues, Erdogan has become one of the most popular leaders in Turkey and the Arab world. With success at home and abroad in a land with such a rich history, it is easy to see how success could go to one’s head.

The protests, initially sparked by opposition to replacing a park with a shopping mall, reflect both this economic success and a political reversal. It is a mistake to dismiss these protests as mere environmental agitation or partisan inspired opposition. It is in fact the same expression that propelled AKP to power: the desire for personal freedoms and inclusion.

The emerging Turkish middle class yearns to be heard during the political decision making process. Having had their taste for freedom and inclusion whetted, they want more. Quizzically, Erdogan has decided to give them less on several recent occasions including:  

  • Shutting down a May Day gathering in Taksim Square.
  • Supporting a recent bill rushed through parliament that restricts the sale of alcohol after 10pm and bans all advertising of alcohol.
  • Pushing ahead with plans to build a mosque in Taksim Square, the heart of secularism in Istanbul.
  • Naming a new bridge over the Bosporus after an Ottoman leader who is resented by Alevi Muslims, a significant minority group.
  • Planning to replace Gezi Park in Istanbul with a shopping mall without sufficient public input.

These moves inflamed the passions of previously politically disengaged citizens that were surprised to see their lifestyle choices under assault.

Rather than being receptive to the public outcry, Erdogan has dug in, insisting that the construction plans would continue. He defended the alcohol law saying on television "Whoever drinks alcohol is an alcoholic." When challenged on whether he would call those who voted for him and happened to enjoy an occasional pint or two drunkards, he began to backtrack.

People of consequence in Turkey tell me that Erdogan is no longer listening to advice from anyone. This approach is not helping. His attempts to stifle the press and the lack of coverage of the protests within the Turkish media does a disservice to government officials who need to see all sides of the argument in order to legislate effectively. Erdogan’s dismissal of social media sites such as Twitter as a "menace" undermines the democratic appeal of his and his party’s leadership.

Turkey is at an important pivot point. If Erdogan returns to the inclusive approach that propelled him to power there is so much good he can do. The nation has geographic and ideological links between the East and West that will serve it well in a 21st century interconnected world, so long as its government remains receptive to all of its citizens’ voices.

This is exactly the time when it is important for a friend and fellow leader like Obama to make a frank private call. His roots as a community organizer would come in handy in providing sound counsel to Erdogan. If this call has been quietly made, kudos to the President. If it has not been made, it should be soon.

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He was previously president of the University of North Dakota, has served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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