Explaining Erdogan: The Prime Minister Engages his Base

The unrest in Turkey demonstrates how Erdogan's rhetoric has polarised Turkish society, despite his political and economic achievements. The events could signal political trouble for the powerful Prime Minister.

As the protests in Turkey continue, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been defiant, labelling the protesters gathered in numerous Turkish cities as 'looters' and 'bums'. Erdogan has sought to tie the protesters to the Republican People's Party (CHP) - the heir to the political party established by Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - and has been clear in his conviction that the movement is an organised effort to damage his Party (the AKP) in advance of upcoming local and presidential elections.


Erdogan has repeatedly said in interview after interview that he has the support of close to 50 per cent of the electorate, and is therefore within his rights to dismiss the demands of the minority gathered in squares and public spaces all throughout Turkey. While the Prime Minister's rhetoric may resonate with his political base - which remains robust and in the plurality, if not outright majority - his brash behaviour has deepened political polarisation and could further undermine Turkey's democracy.

Turkey's Political Dynamics: The Origins of Gezi Park

The Turkish Prime Minister, as is almost always the case with Erdogan, is speaking to his supporters, using subtle language to tap into the deep-seated feeling of historic disenfranchisement felt by Turkey's religious conservatives.

After being elected in 2002, the AKP championed Turkey's EU accession process and greater democracy. The two issues went hand-in-hand and the AKP aggressively moved to implement EU reforms. However the process stalled in the mid-2000s over EU apathy, driven in large part by France and Germany, and Turkey's refusal to open its borders and ports to the ships and airplanes of its rival Cyprus. Despite the stall, the economy continued to do well, producing a sense in Turkey that the country was headed in the right direction.

This dynamic began to change in 2009, after the AKP and the insurgent Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) agreed on a plan for thirty-four PKK fighters to return from bases in Northern Iraq to southeastern Turkey. The AKP did not prepare its constituents for the deal, and Kurds living in Turkey treated the fighters' return as a victory celebration. Erdogan was angered by the show of support and many of Turkey's democratic reforms began to unravel, as the politically vulnerable AKP opted to tack to the nationalist right to protect their flank. However, as the Syrian civil war spiraled out of control, Ankara has once again begun to make serious reforms aimed at ending its decades old fight with the Kurdistan Workers Party. Nevertheless, the tone of the AKP's political campaign has shifted from the EU democratic reforms to construction projects.

As a result, during the 2011 election campaign, the AKP's political platform rested heavily on the handling of the economy, as well as plans for massive, though contentious, infrastructure projects - including a third bridge, a third airport in Istanbul, a man-made canal to rival the Bosphorus, and other symbols of national prestige tied to military equipment. The government has paired these efforts with a legislative agenda that many non-AKP voters feel is an intrusion on their personal lives.

The Prime Minster has felt the need to counsel Turks on the number of children they should have, the type of bread they should eat, and, most recently, has imposed new restrictions on the buying and selling of alcohol. In an offensive off-handed remark, Erdogan, in an interview on Saturday, labeled all people that drink alcoholics. The Prime Minister, who does have a number of supporters who drink alcohol, has since issued a clarification, saying that that his reference to alcoholism did not include those that indulge only once or twice a month. While the law, which is largely in line with legislation in Europe, seems banal to most outsiders, the issue of alcohol is contentious in Turkey. For many, drinking is a symbol of the country's Western tilt and the Prime Minister's efforts are perceived as religiously motivated.

The passage of the law, however, speaks to larger frustrations within Turkey about Erdogan's penchant for failing to engage with those that don't share his personal and political outlooks. Erdogan failed to engage the opposition during the drafting of the alcohol law and his flippant dismissal of the concerns of the Turkish left, simply underscored the pervasive feeling that his authoritarian manner was eroding Turkey's democracy.

Thus, while the government's plans to build a shopping mall in Gezi Park - the small Park next to Istanbul's famed Taksim square - was the initial spark for the demonstrators to organise, the feelings of political marginalisation run far deeper.

Explaining Erdogan: He is not Speaking to Everyone

Erdogan, on the other hand, was caught off guard by the massive demonstrations that have swept the country in recent days. After the protests escalated on Friday, the Prime Minister's first instinct was to focus on his party's handling of the Turkey's growing economy. As the protests continued to gather steam, the Prime Minister quickly pivoted to labeling the protesters as agents of the main opposition CHP. His language was designed to undermine the legitimacy of the protest movement and prevent it from being labeled as a grass roots reaction to AKP rule. Erdogan has continued to hammer away at this point and has even stooped to suggesting that foreign intelligence services might have played a role - a tactic he used after the bombings near the Syrian border that killed fifty-two people.

While Erdogan's rhetoric appear to be the ravings of a dictator to many outsider observers, his language is in fact carefully calibrated to resonate with members of his core political base. Turkey's conservative population has been systematically discriminated against by the country's secular and military elites since the founding of the Republic in 1923. For example, graduates from religious schools - also known as Imam Hatip High Schools - were faced with tremendous obstacles to study non-religious subjects at University. (Erdogan and many AKP politicians are graduates of these schools.) In addition, the Kemalist elite has imposed strict restrictions on the wearing of the headscarf in public buildings and, as recently as 2008, Turkey's Constitutional Court opened a case to close the AKP for threatening secularism.

Thus, when Erdogan speaks of deepening Turkish democracy, he means that he will continue to right what he perceives as the wrongs of the past, where the minority Kemalist elite imposed an alternative lifestyle on Turkey's more conservative masses. The Prime Minister therefore has used the 'Kemalist card' to try and de-legitimize what really is a large leaderless spasm of anger at the AKP's rule.

While these tactics may seem bizarre, it would be unwise to discount the resonance this discourse has amongst the AKP voter base. Thus, one consequence of the protests could be a hardening of support for the Prime Minister from members of his base and, strangely enough, Erdogan might even benefit at the polls.

However, if one looks beyond elections, the AKP's efforts to pass a new constitution could be hindered, or at least complicated by hyper political polarisation. As of now, the deliberations for the new text are taking place in a constitutional commission, which includes representatives from the AKP, the CHP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The consultations are moving very slowly and Erdogan has threatened to present his own draft to the Parliament for consideration, arguing that the process should be speeded up.

While differences remain about a whole host of issues, the current debate in Turkey is now centered on the Prime Minister's preference to move from a parliamentary to Presidential political system. Erdogan, who is faced with his Party's own self-imposed term limits, is keen to expand the power of the Turkish presidency and run for the position in 2014. As of now the position is largely ceremonial. Erdogan will, in all likelihood, assume the Presidency regardless, but the scope of his powers are still up for debate. The powerful Prime Minister has failed to convince the members of his own party to sign off on the Presidential system and the proposal is unpopular in Turkey. However, if the Party members feel under siege, Erdogan could try and convince them of the needs to go along with his wishes.

Yet, within the Party, current President Abdullah Gul appears to be positioning himself opposite Erdogan in his handling of the protests, suggesting that the divisions about the constitution and the future legislative direction of the party remain. In parallel, it is hard to imagine the major parties will be more cooperative during the constitutional commission process, now that Erdogan has become so divisive. The schedule for its unveiling, the Presidential system, as well as the way in which the AKP would go about garnering support for it in the Parliament are in flux and it is too early to tell how it will all play out. The process, however, is indicative of the current political reality in Turkey: namely that the AKP, even after the protests, is largely running against itself. In turn, if the AKP does not handle this process well, the deliberations could further fracture an already polarised Turkish society.

Despite the AKP's continued stranglehold on power, the situation in Turkey is not likely to return to the pre-protest norm. The Prime Minister, perhaps for the first time since being elected in 2002, has been dealt a serious political defeat.  If he continues to legislate the way he did before the protests, the feeling of resentment and political disenfranchisement will continue. Thus, even after the police clear Taksim of the protesters, the sense of anger will still exist and a contentious legislative issue could lead to a return of people to the streets.

No Return to the Status Quo Ante

After Erdogan's national and international drubbing for the police's appalling conduct, it is hard to imagine that he would sanction the use of such violence again in the future. In turn, the protesters, no matter how fractured their political sympathies may be, could settle on taking to the streets as a democratic tool to express their displeasure with Erdogan in the future. Given some of the ingrained fragility of the Turkish economy, the Prime Minister is unlikely to want repeated large-scale protesters beamed to foreign investors on a regular basis. Turkey relies heavily on portfolio funds to finance the large current account deficit. While the government has benefitted from this arrangement, outside investors are not invested for the 'long term' and can pull their money out of Turkey very quickly. This would create financial instability and could seriously hurt the economy. The government, therefore, has a tremendous incentive to continue to ensure that Turkey remains an attractive place to invest, which obviously includes political stability.

However, Erdogan has to balance these issues with the concerns of his image amongst his base, which continues to rest on passing laws that are more representative of the AKP's religious voters. More broadly, this dynamic underscores how Erdogan's language, has further contributed to the deepening of Turkey's intense ideological polarisation. This polarisation is not conducive to the further development of Turkey's troubled democracy and the recognition of the demands of the non-AKP voting public. While the Prime Minister appears to be betting that his standing at the ballot box will be unaffected, his rhetoric could have far reaching consequence beyond simple percentages.

Aaron Stein is a doctoral candidate at King's College, London and a researcher specialising in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk. Follow him on twitter @aaronstein1.


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