Erdogan’s popularity contest
In the past week thousands of people have mobilized across Turkey, protesting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate power and impose his agenda. Erdogan’s heavy-handed response — he sent riot police in to disperse the largely peaceful protesters in Istanbul — led to widespread condemnation, and even bigger protests.
The facile interpretation of what’s happening in Turkey is that it’s the next stage of the Arab Spring, when the rage of a region spreads even to its most stable, democratic outlier. But that’s not the case here. There are real differences between what’s happening in Turkey and what happened in the Arab Spring — and they’re a testament to how successful Turkey has been as a nation, and how successful it will continue to be.
Arab Spring protests in a country like Egypt were an outcry against the political system as a whole. In Turkey, the anger is directed at one man, whose ouster would not topple the political system more broadly — and Erdogan still holds the key to mitigating the conflict if he can take a more conciliatory stance (though for him, that might be easier said than done.)
The Arab Spring was set into motion by poor, disenfranchised citizens who couldn’t find a job, and couldn’t foresee a time when they would. Self-immolation seemed a better bet than anything else.
In Turkey, we’re seeing a very different group of protesters. The conflict was started by the residents of a cosmopolitan city protesting the kind of issue that the cosmopolitan care about most — whether a park should be sacrificed for a shopping mall. Just look to the signature image of the protest, a woman being sprayed with tear gas despite looking like she’s dressed to stroll a boulevard.
What these people are protesting is different as well. They’re upset not with a country on a road to nowhere, but a country whose leader is attempting to hijack the bus. Erdogan has systematically consolidated power, and has begun imposing his conservative beliefs on the Turkish people. He has campaigned against alcohol, compared the danger of cigarettes to the danger of terrorism and called abortions “murder.” In a globalized, urbanized space like Istanbul, this goes against the wishes of an empowered middle class — it’s no wonder they were the first to rise up.
Erdogan has also defanged Turkey’s army, making the military less of a player in Turkish politics. That’s one of the clearest reasons that Turkey’s protests aren’t the Arab Spring’s: Erdogan, unlike Mubarak, Assad and Qaddafi, can’t sic the military on the protesters (nor would the will of the people compel the military to push Erdogan out of power). The military has been relegated to the sidelines.
So what will dictate whether these protests grow or recede? They’re very unlikely to go away as long as Erdogan remains so publicly defiant. It’s apparently not in Erdogan’s character to admit fault. A few days ago he reasserted plans to erect a mosque in Taksim Square, the site of the protests. He left for a previously scheduled four-day trip to North Africa in the midst of the crisis. He has dismissed the protesters as “looters” and claimed that discontent should only be expressed in the ballot box.
Erdogan’s stubbornness goes hand in hand with his autocratic streak, which is a large part of what the protesters are taking issue with in the first place. The protesters don’t want to topple the government, nor are they trying to expel the Justice and Development Party (AKP)— they want to express their disapproval of Erdogan himself, and the direction in which he is taking the country.
Many would say Erdogan is the government, and that as he continues to consolidate power, protesting his actions and those of the AKP are one and the same. However, the protests themselves are increasingly proving that this isn’t the case. As Erdogan has dug his heels in, we’ve seen Turkey’s other leaders distance themselves, with the deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc apologizing for the government’s response to the protesters. President Abdullah Gul said he “received” the message. Protest, he conceded, is an acceptable instrument in a robust democracy.
The good news is that Turkey’s recent economic success — much of it abetted by Erdogan’s policies of the past decade — doesn’t allow for Erdogan’s autocratic streak to do damage to Turkey’s economic vibrancy or the architecture of its political system. Erdogan lacks the ability to turn Turkey into a dictatorship even if he wanted to; correspondingly, the protesters are not out to topple the government. The country remains too democratic and too rich to go the path of its neighbors that succumbed to the Arab Spring. It is more similar to the United States than it is to neighboring authoritarian regimes: The people who run for office may have authoritarian proclivities — many American politicians certainly do, too — but that doesn’t mean they can suspend the rule of law.
So what’s next? Everyone’s waiting on Erdogan’s next move. After three consecutive terms as prime minister (the AKP maximum), Erdogan will seek the presidency in next year’s election. He will accordingly aim to vest the presidency with expanded powers. Both of these goals, however, will hinge on how Erdogan handles the protests from here. If Erdogan walks back his rhetoric and makes peace through personal contrition, it is highly likely that the protests can be put behind him in order to win the presidency in 2014. However, if he doubles down on his aggressive posture and does not stray from that stubborn strategy, it will lead to growing divisions within his ranks — both in the AKP and in his wider constituency.
Much of Erdogan’s bull-headed approach to the protesters may stem from a false perception of his popularity — after all, much of Turkey is just as conservative as Erdogan wants it to be, and he may believe that this recent episode will shore up support within his base. But that’s not true of liberal businessmen who have only stuck by Erdogan for the economic stability he has brought in. Erdogan is failing to realize just how broad the pushback could be if he continues to push forward with a dismissive, authoritarian stance toward the protesters. If he does so, it’s not inconceivable that he’d be out of office on this side of six months. Bottom line: It’s fully within Erdogan’s power to salvage the situation. All it would require is acting in his own rational self-interest and walking back his actions. His recent behavior has sprung some doubts as to whether he is capable of doing so.
This episode won’t derail Turkey’s structural economic vitality or its democratic political system — it’s far too stable for that. But for a country where domestic political stability has been virtually written off as a risk factor for investors, recent developments are jarring. So, too, is the potential for a savvy politician who has masterfully navigated Turkish politics over the course of his career to effect his own demise.
Regardless of the outcome, Turkey’s economic engine and its democratic system will prevail. As we’re now seeing — and Erdogan has yet to learn — sometimes even a healthy democracy spills beyond the ballot box.
PHOTO: Anti-government protesters try to protect themselves from a water cannon as riot police disperse them during a protest in Ankara June 5, 2013. Turkish demonstrators demanded the sacking of police chiefs on Wednesday over a fierce crackdown on days of unprecedented protest against what they see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. REUTERS/Umit Bektas