x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Erdogan struggles to keep image alive

The Turkish prime minister has been accused of neglecting the reformist agenda he had promised.

ISTANBUL // For years, many Turks saw Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a charismatic leader with a vision of change and democracy. But today, six years after his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, swept to power in Nov 2002, even some of the prime minister's long-time supporters say he has turned into a hardliner who seems to have forgotten his reformist agenda. "In 2002 he had an approach like [Barack] Obama," said Fehmi Koru, a prominent columnist who has long been considered close to Mr Erdogan. "But in the year 2008 it seems he approaches problems in a style of governing that reminds us a little of [George W] Bush." That change may have been caused by the AKP's will to stay in power in a political climate where the main opposition parties and important players like the military are opposed to further democratic reforms and where Turkey does not receive a clear perspective for membership by the European Union, said Sahin Alpay, a writer and political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "They are probably surrendering their reform agenda to conservative circles in order to hang on to power." Mr Koru's reference to the US president-elect and the outgoing president, in an interview on the news channel NTV last week, has become the most widely quoted phrase in Turkish media as it summed up the perceived change of Mr Erdogan from a reformer who promised change to an uncompromising politician. Other prominent writers and intellectuals, who used to support the AKP, have also voiced concerns that Mr Erdogan may have left the path of reform for good. "Is it the end of the love affair with Erdogan?" the newspaper Birgun asked in a headline this week. There are several factors behind this sense of being let down by Mr Erdogan. The AKP's reform drive to get Turkey ready for EU membership has all but dried up. A new, more democratic constitution has been promised, but no concrete steps have been taken to get the project off the ground. And most important of all, Mr Erdogan is seen to have abandoned his efforts for a democratic solution of Turkey's Kurdish conflict, opting for a more nationalist approach instead. Coming four months before local elections next March, this move is seen by some as an effort by the AKP to attract right-wing voters. A poll published last week indicated that support for the AKP is weakening. If elections were held now, the AKP would receive 36.4 per cent of the vote, the poll said, much less than the almost 47 per cent it received in general elections last year. However, other polls predict higher results for Mr Erdogan's party. In 2005 Mr Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minister to publicly acknowledge that there is a "Kurdish problem" in Turkey. At that time he said the conflict, which killed 40,000 people since Kurdish rebels took up arms against Ankara in 1984 to fight for self-rule, could be solved by improving democracy. But in a speech during a trip to the Kurdish area earlier this month, in which he criticised Kurdish radicals, Mr Erdogan profoundly shocked the reform camp. "What did we say? We said 'one nation, one flag, one motherland, one state'," Mr Erdogan said. "Those who oppose this do not have a place in Turkey. Please, they should leave and go somewhere they like." Shortly afterwards Mr Erdogan gave the impression of condoning violence against Kurdish activists after an incident in Istanbul, where people opened fire with pump guns to prevent supporters of the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, Turkey's main Kurdish party, from staging a demonstration. "I recommend patience to my fellow citizens," Mr Erdogan said. "But when does the patience run out?" He added that if a citizen was threatened, he should "defend himself". A prominent reformer Ahmet Altan accused Mr Erdogan of having adopted an undemocratic idea of a state that felt above its citizens, that gave a political role to the military and that wanted to prevent change. There was no reason for the constitutional court to close down the AKP, Mr Altan, the editor of the Taraf newspaper, wrote in a reference to a court case in which the AKP narrowly escaped being dissolved this summer. "It is no longer necessary to close down the party, because Erdogan himself is closing down the old AKP." Other observers, some of whom have supported Mr Erdogan so far, agreed with Mr Altan. Last weekend, the sudden resignation of Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, an AKP deputy chairman and a leading liberal politician of Kurdish descent, fanned speculation about a programmatic turnaround in the governing party. Mr Firat said he resigned because of health reasons, but newspaper reports said he was unhappy with Mr Erdogan's new position on the Kurdish question. The man who took over Mr Firat's position, former interior minister Abdulkadir Aksu, is also a Kurd, but considered to be a hardliner. The arrival of Mr Aksu meant that the AKP's days as a party supporting reform were over, Mr Altan predicted. "Not a single thing will be done in the European Union issue," he wrote. Given a domestic political environment that was resisting further reforms and an EU that was "showing no encouragement," Mr Erdogan and the AKP had apparently decided to play the nationalist card, Mr Alpay said. But while the consequences of this shift could be far-reaching, "it is too early to say whether we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Erdogan era". tseibert@thenational.ae