Recep Tayyip Erdogan's misjudgment of protesters could cost him power

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has bulldozed aside opponents in his quest to modernise Turkey, but a week of street protests has dented his power

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 9:19am

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has walked Turkey's political stage unchallenged for a decade, bringing powerful generals to heel and driving economic success that has changed the face of the country, spreading its influence across the region.

But unprecedented protests and riots may now set limits to the power of a prime minister widely seen as victim of the same uncompromising and emotional manner that has helped him to three successive election victories. They may also bury his hopes of assuming a new more powerful executive presidency next year.

"There are deputies and officials in the party who are unhappy about recent developments," said a source close to the AK party Erdogan led to power in 2002, crushing established parties mired in accusations of incompetence and corruption.

"This is an unprecedented situation for Erdogan. Some people in the AKP think that his policies have to soften, but they remain loyal to party discipline and to Erdogan himself."

Supporters on Twitter, echoing the emotional drama of recent days, declare they would not abandon Erdogan to the same fate as his two political heroes, a prime minister hanged after a 1960 military coup and a president some say was poisoned.

Thousands turned up to greet him on Friday when he returned from an overseas trip.

Those familiar with Erdogan say he does not take well to personal challenges.

"Erdogan takes things very personally," said Cengiz Candar, a journalist who has closely followed Erdogan from his days in a small Islamist party and his imprisonment for reciting a poem about religion to his rise to the pinnacle of power.

"He has developed a very authoritarian style."

Erdogan's early reforming zeal brought tangible human-rights reforms, including Kurdish minority rights, the opening of European Union entry talks and abolition of a military-dominated National Security Council with broad control of state affairs.

More recently he has been criticised at home and abroad over a wide-ranging coup investigation, heavy pressure on the media and restrictions on alcohol retail that critics attribute to religious motives.

Despite the protests, Erdogan remains by far the country's most popular politician, his blustering, assertive style and common touch resonating with the conservative Islamic heartland.

His AK party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive elections and holds about two-thirds of the seats in parliament. A man who rarely bows to any opposition, he clearly has no intention of stepping down and no obvious rivals inside or outside his party.

Erdogan's mistake may have been to misjudge fundamentally the nature of the protests as they developed last weekend.

In a speech, he compared them to past Istanbul "Republic" protests organised by militant secularists accusing Erdogan of trying to replace Turkey's secular republic with an Islamist order.

Erdogan denies accusations of secret Islamist ambitions.

Perhaps his greatest service to democracy in Turkey - though some critics view it as a campaign intended only to safeguard his own power - has been the breaking of the power of the military, which toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century. Hundreds of officers have been jailed after coup trials that have inflicted deep wounds on the military.

The speech held another insight into Erdogan's frame of mind. Tellingly, he also likened the protests in Taksim Square to incidents leading up to a 1960 coup against prime minister Adnan Menderes.

"This attitude is … [that] of those who cannot tolerate governments who come to power through elections," he said. "It's the attitude of those who call the people 'blockheads' and 'belly scratchers'."

Erdogan identifies zealously with Menderes, who ended decades of unchallenged rule by the party of secular state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Republican People's Party (CHP), and introduced liberal reforms. But he later fell prey to the same uncompromising and authoritarian style that won him election. His career ended on a military gallows in 1961.

Erdogan, underlining his legitimacy as leader, points to the 50 per cent vote he received in the last election and his clear majority in parliament. But this favour is by no means assured after the protests in Taksim Square.

"I don't think Erdogan has the 51 per cent any more … He has 25 per cent confirmed that are loyal to him," said Koray Caliskan, associate professor at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

"I was at parliament … and met many AKP [lawmakers]. One of them said, 'The prime minister says one thing, while the president says another. We can't speak freely in the Group. There's no democracy. This needs to be discussed, but it can't be.'"

The lesson for Erdogan, according to critics and some allies, is that he must take account of the 49 per cent who did not vote for him, and those of that number who never will trust him.

Among them are influential parts of business and the middle classes, who may have benefited from AK party economic stewardship that has tripled per capita income, but view his long-term plans and his personality with deep suspicion. For now, he remains the unchallenged leader of AK, whatever the fears haunting some parts of the party. But he, and those around him, face a challenge calming the protests without appearing to lose face.

"Erdogan cannot backtrack now. It would mean defeat," said Ali Aydin, 38, a car dealer in the Tophane neighbourhood of Istanbul, a conservative bastion in the mostly Bohemian district around Taksim Square. "Weakness would destroy the party."

The ruling-party triumvirate of Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc remains intact. What could conceivably divide them are tactics and personality.

"Mr President and Mr Prime Minister can have different characters, styles, they can have different characters, styles, they can have different views on specific issues, but to reflect that as a general difference of views is incorrect. There is no problem between Mr President and Mr Prime Minister," said AK party member of parliament Professor Mustafa Sentop.

Erdogan was believed to be planning to stand for a powerful new executive presidency next year. But moves to create that presidency appear to have foundered in parliament.

This would leave Erdogan either to stand for the non-executive presidency in 2014, or to serve out what under the constitution would be a final term as prime minister ending in 2015.

Erdogan has already set his stamp on Turkish history as the most significant leader since Kemal Ataturk.

But he will have to show consummate skill to establish himself yet as the man who united a country still uneasy in its skin 90 years after Ataturk ended an Asian theocracy and imposed a Western-style secular state.