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Prime Minister Erdogan: Turkey’s Man of The People

11 minute read
Rana Foroohar

You could call it poetic justice. Back in 1999, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then an up-and-coming young mayor of Istanbul with populist appeal and Islamist leanings, was sentenced to 10 months in jail for reciting a century-old poem that the country’s generals — the enforcers of Turkey’s constitutionally mandated secularism — found offensive. “Minarets are our bayonets,” the poem went, “the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks, and the believers our army.” Erdogan was packed away for inciting religious hatred, but not before shouting that “this song is not yet over.”

And how. On June 12, Erdogan led his Justice and Development Party (the AKP) to its third consecutive victory in Turkish parliamentary elections, improving on his 47% landslide victory in 2007 by bringing in 50% of the vote. The Prime Minister, who has led the country since 2003 and is widely considered to be the most successful politician of his generation, had lost none of his bluster, proclaiming the results a victory “for Bosnia as much as Istanbul, Beirut as much as Izmir, Damascus as much as Ankara.”

(See: “Turkey’s Election Offers a Last Chance to Integrate the Kurds.”)

Certainly people in all those places — and far beyond — were watching the election, which will likely have a critical impact on the region and the wider world. Erdogan has arguably been the most transformational leader in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. A 57-year-old former soccer player and native of Istanbul’s tough Kasimpasa district, Erdogan, a pious Muslim with a headscarf-wearing wife, appeals to the devout among Turkey’s Anatolian masses, who, like religious Americans from the heartland, often feel condescended to by the coastal, secular elite. But he’s also popular among the urban working class, which is dealing with issues of cultural dislocation, and millions of small- and midsize-business owners who like what he’s done for the economy over the past decade. Erdogan may be a populist figure who knows how to chest-thump his way to points with a nationalist electorate, but he’s also a savvy economic manager and, to some, a reformer who would like Turkey to play a much bigger economic and political role on the global stage.

The first of those qualities cemented Erdogan’s victory this time around. “It’s the economy, stupid” could have been the slogan for this election. “Most people vote with their pocketbooks,” says Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar and expert on Turkey at the Carnegie Endowment. “This government is reaping the benefits of reforms started back in the 1980s.” That’s when Turkey, like so many developing nations, began to open up to the world and liberalize its markets. But it wasn’t until 2001 when Turkey began to enforce International Monetary Fund fiscal targets that things really improved. Since then, the AKP has steered the ship exceptionally well. During its tenure, per capita income in the country has tripled, exports have quadrupled, and inflation has dropped from as high as 37% to between 5% and 8%. Turkey has the 17th largest economy in the world, and Goldman Sachs predicts it will break into the top 10 by 2050, assuming things stay on track.

(See: “Turkey’s Election: The Massive Implications of a Foregone Conclusion.”)

So far they have. While Old Europe is facing a debt meltdown and many of the East European tigers were blown up in the financial crisis, Turkey, with a population of 78.8 million, is one of a handful of countries that managed to rebound quickly from the global downturn. Turkey’s economy grew 8.9% last year, the fastest rate of any large country aside from China and India. “It’s kind of unbelievable how well they’ve managed the economy,” says Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who specializes in Middle Eastern economies. “Turkey has become a darling among foreign investors.”

Many of those investors are regional neighbors: there’s a lot of Gulf money in Turkey, and many Turkish multinationals operate in the Arab world. Iran and Iraq are among Turkey’s largest trading partners. But these economic alliances are only part of a larger role that Erdogan would like to see his country play in regional and world affairs. Turkey is a huge energy corridor, with oil and gas pipelines running across it. Like China, it’s a major builder of infrastructure projects at home and abroad. It has the second largest army in NATO after that of the U.S. And it hopes to become a member of the European Union, though European Islamophobia has in recent years soured those ambitions. Perhaps most important, it’s a working example of Muslim democracy.

(See why Syria and Turkey are suddenly far apart on Arab Spring protests)

All this fuels Erdogan’s aspirations to be a regional leader. While there’s no real “Ankara consensus,” Turkey has in the past few years pursued a policy of “zero problems toward neighbors,” a phrase coined by charismatic Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The AKP has tried to warm relations with the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iran, Syria and other neighbors. But results have been mixed. Attempts to broker a deal between the U.N. and Iran to avoid further sanctions over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program fell apart. The once friendly relationship with Israel turned icy after the killing of aid workers aboard a Turkish flotilla headed for Gaza last year.

Perhaps most pertinent, Erdogan, who likes to paint himself as a man of the people, has been far from sure-footed in his handling of the revolutions in the Middle East. Many Anatolian companies have carved substantial business opportunities in the autocracies surrounding Turkey, which makes them defenders of the status quo. That’s made it tricky for Erdogan to get in sync with rapidly changing public opinion in the region. Two years ago, for example, when Iranians took to the streets to protest election results, Erdogan sent his congratulations to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When fighting began this spring in Libya, Turkey initially backed longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi; only in May did popular anger over civilian deaths in Libya force Erdogan, during the run-up to the election, to call for Gaddafi’s departure. And Turkey has only just started to protest the vicious crackdown on demonstrators in neighboring Syria, in part because Syrian refugees have begun pouring over the border. “It’s good that Erdogan has moved away from his initial position on Libya and Syria,” says Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the whole thing has compromised Turkey’s claims to have some special insight into the people of the region.”

See photos of Kurdish rebels.

See photos of Syrians fleeing into Turkey.

A Liberal Democracy — or Not?
In truth, the Arab Spring has forced Turkey to confront the question of exactly what kind of emerging power it wants to be. It could end up like China, nationalist and self-interested, using its economic muscle to advance its political ambitions. Or it could be ready to take on the challenges of multilateral diplomacy and regional leadership. “I don’t think that Erdogan wants Turkey to be seen in the same light as China, as a country that will do anything to preserve its economic self-interest,” says the New America Foundation’s Molavi. “But the big question that Turkey has to ask itself is this: Are we a liberal democracy or not?”

The answer will have ramifications both at home and abroad. For years, the AKP has been trying to rewrite Turkey’s constitution to limit the power of the military, which since Ataturk’s day has been the enforcer of the secular order, occasionally by force. The party would like to loosen rules regarding things like the wearing of headscarves, which are banned in state-owned spaces such as universities, courtrooms and political institutions. Erdogan would also like to shift the country from its parliamentary system to a presidential one, which would allow him to further consolidate power. But while the AKP did well in the parliamentary elections, it didn’t win enough seats to rewrite the constitution without consultation. The election “gives Erdogan the message that he needs to work together with opposition parties to do this, rather than trying to do it on his own based on his own principles, which wouldn’t be healthy,” says Sahin Alpay, a political professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

The constitution has been repeatedly tweaked, most recently last year, but there’s widespread agreement that it needs updating. The document does more to protect the state than the nation’s citizens and is reflective of the insecure Turkey of a previous era that desperately wanted to move into the modern (read: Western) world. The headscarf ban that is supposed to be a reflection of the secular state, for example, is now considered by many a violation of civil liberties. Updating the constitution would allow more freedom of speech and protect the rights of minorities like the Kurds, 14 million strong, who live in the southeastern part of the country. The current constitution allows the government to prevent Kurds from speaking their language and gathering for cultural events.

(See how Turkey unites over basketball, if not over the new constitution.)

In the past, Erdogan has been a defender of the Kurds, giving them more freedom and autonomy. He’s promised more still, including amnesty for the guerrilla fighters of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group whose leaders are based in the mountains of northern Iraq. But Erdogan hasn’t yet delivered, leading to a mounting sense of unrest in the Kurdish southeast. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about the AKP’s suppression of civil rights within Turkey. Under Erdogan, the police have become increasingly powerful and are allegedly dominated by a tightly knit religious brotherhood. Two internationally acclaimed Turkish journalists investigating the police were detained and jailed in March and have yet to be tried. Journalists now assume that their phones are tapped; public leaks of private conversations have become commonplace. Many believe the AKP was behind the recent release of a spate of sex tapes showing senior members of an opposition party in bed with women who were not their wives.

Erdogan’s critics are also concerned about runaway economic growth and its impact on the environment. Just as in China, breakneck development in Turkey has had serious consequences. Yet when thousands of villagers along the Black Sea and the Aegean coast gathered to protest pollution from power plants, Erdogan called them “bandits.” He has been similarly dismissive of opposition to the plans to build the country’s first nuclear power plant in an earthquake zone, though polls show a majority of Turks to be against the project.

(See photos of the streets of Istanbul.)

All this raises questions about exactly what Turks can expect from the AKP in its third term. Erdogan’s party may have scored an enormous victory, but challenges are brewing on many fronts. The economy, while still robust, needs rebalancing. Exports are beginning to slow, and the country’s current account deficit is growing. There’s a lot of hot money in the country, which could leave at any moment. Policymakers badly need to loosen the labor market and institute tax reforms. And Turkey’s ambition to shape the future of the region remains a hostage to the many conservative Turkish entrepreneurs doing business with the Middle East’s old regimes.

Yet for all the concerns about Erdogan and the challenges facing his new government, both the U.S. and Western Europe have a stake in seeing Turkey succeed and become the sort of open, economically dynamic, politically confident nation that can act as a model in the Islamic world. The test will come over rewriting the constitution. If Erdogan uses the negotiations primarily to try to push forward a religious agenda and consolidate his power base, he could end up alienating both Kurds and secular liberals and make it impossible for Turkey to serve as a model of liberal Islamic democracy. But if he makes civil rights and individual liberty the focus, he may be remembered as the man who brought Turkey into its next stage of development on its own terms. Either way, the eyes of the world will be on him.
— With reporting by Pelin Turgut / Istanbul

See photos of Kurdish rebels.

See photos of Syrians fleeing into Turkey.

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