x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Erdogan governs half of Turkey. He must relate to the other half

Surrounded by yes-men, the Turkish prime minister appears unable to listen to anyone but himself

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

The big issues in Turkey - such as the Kurdish conflict, the Muslim headscarf, or the rights of religious and ethnic minorities - have often proved too divisive to unite opponents of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So it was fitting, perhaps, that the issue that united hundreds of thousands of them was a tiny, nine-acre patch of trees.

At the end of May, a small group of activists staged a peaceful sit-in at Istanbul's Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces in a city that has almost entirely been paved over, to protest against the area's demolition and planned transformation into a museum and shopping centre. On June 1, police stormed the park, driving the protesters out with batons and tear gas, burning their tents and leaving dozens injured.

What happened next, and what is happening still, has defied expectations. Over the past week, the images of bloodied, tear-gassed protesters have been broadcast on television - at least at first - and shared via social media. They have galvanised thousands of Turks to take to the streets and demand an end to police brutality, a halt to construction in Gezi and, most brazenly, the prime minister's resignation.

The protests have made bedfellows out of a bewilderingly rich variety of groups. During several visits to Taksim Square and nearby neighbourhoods, I witnessed ultranationalists marching alongside socialists, Kurds marching alongside Kemalists, secularists marching alongside anti-capitalist Muslims, and gay rights activists marching alongside Alevis, not to mention diehard fans of the city's three football teams posing together for pictures. What sparked the initial protest was Gezi. What rallied the protesters was their resentment of Mr Erdogan. If it was not the wish to see him step down, which remains unrealistic, then it was at least the desire to check his powers and his ambitions.

Mr Erdogan, betting on his popularity among religious conservatives - who constitute his electoral base, who have helped him ride to three consecutive victories at the polls since 2002, and who have been largely absent from the continuing demonstrations - has done nothing to calm the mood. Ignoring the scale of the tensions, he has referred to the protesters as "looters", "bums" and "marginal elements", and bragged that if they were to gather 100,000 people, "I will gather a million".

The prime minister, who still commands the majority of the population, is right. With a few words, he could probably bring a million of his followers to the streets. By framing the debate in this way, however, he is missing the point.

If he is to repair the damage done to his reputation and restore some sense of social stability, it won't be by outmuscling the protesters - or drowning them in a spoonful of water, as the ruling party's Ankara mayor tweeted - but by trying to accommodate their concerns. These are many and include the runaway pace of urban development, new restrictions on alcohol sales, the government's Syria policy, education reform and a temporarily shelved abortion law.

All of these, at least in the protesters' eyes, are wedded to one thing: the prime minister's authoritarian style of politics and his desire to reshape Turkish society along Islamic lines. (Turkey is majority Muslim, but constitutionally secular.) Opining on what people should drink, how many children women should have, and even what soap operas Turks ought to boycott, Mr Erdogan has become his country's most powerful and most micromanaging ruler since its founder, Kemal Ataturk.

It wasn't always so. During his first years in power, in the throes of a honeymoon with the European Union, which Turkey has sought for decades to join, Mr Erdogan helped push through a raft of groundbreaking democratic reforms, which enabled him to build a high degree of social consensus.

Why Turkey seemed to lose interest in the EU, and in the changes needed to enter it, remains unclear to this day. Perhaps it was because friends of Turkey in Europe, leaders like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, eventually gave way to opponents like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. Perhaps it was because the economy boomed like never before, making Turks doubt the need to ally themselves with the EU and its cumbersome regulations. Perhaps it was because Turkey's initially successful "zero problems with neighbours" policy - which now lies buried under the wreckage of Syria - convinced Mr Erdogan that his country's future would and should lie in the Middle East.

Whatever the case, the reforms - with the notable exception of the government's policies towards the Kurds, which have recently yielded a ceasefire with PKK rebels - stalled in 2005 and Mr Erdogan has since contented himself with presiding over an unprecedented economic boom and accumulating power.

Institutions and companies have been packed with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faithful. Their allies in the police and the judiciary, not content with sidelining their former tormentors inside the army, have driven them into the ground, sending scores of generals to prison on often wafer-thin coup charges.

The voice of the secular minority, channelled weakly and maladroitly by the almost comically impotent Republican People's Party, the main opposition outfit, has gone unheard and unheeded. Journalists who refuse to toe the AKP's line have often been cowed, harassed, and in some cases jailed. As a result, as Steven Cook recently put it in Foreign Affairs, Turkey has split: "Erdogan governs one half the country - his supporters - and intimidates the other."

Surrounded by yes-men, the prime minister seems unable to digest criticism or listen to anyone but himself. Abdullah Gul, who helped the prime minister mould the AKP from the debris of an outlawed Islamist party in 2001, was previously said to be the only person capable of standing up to Mr Erdogan. Since Mr Gul's ascent to the presidency in 2007, no one in the party has dared to take up the mantle.

On paper, the kind of protests that have raged across Turkish cities this week were not supposed to happen - certainly not in a country whose economy has surged at almost 5 per cent per year over the past decade, whose ruling party has commanded a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls and whose democratic credentials remain far better than those of its neighbours.

But perhaps it was precisely because the Erdogan government had accumulated so much power, and begun using that power to reshape society that the demonstrations had become inevitable.

A government and a prime minister willing to ride roughshod over the concerns of a large part of society - most of all the secular minority - may have been destined to suffer the backlash.

So far, the outcome of the protests remains uncertain. After a week of demonstrations, clashes between protesters and police forces and yet more excessive violence meted out by the latter, things have calmed down just a bit.

The ball is now squarely in Mr Erdogan's court. Instead of trying to marginalise the protesters, who represent a fairly large cross-section of society, he will have to reinvent himself as the leader of all Turks and not just the AKP faithful.

Failing to do so threatens to polarise society even further, and invite even more unrest than Turkey has witnessed to date.


Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer based in Istanbul

On Twitter: @p_zalewski