All the Prime Minister's Yes-Men

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's troubles are rooted in his changed leadership style.

The dramatic events unfolding in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey are a reaction to the increasing authoritarian tendencies of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the vacuity of his opposition. While the demonstrations are unlikely to change the political direction of Turkey, they will certainly throw an element of uncertainty into the body politic. If poorly managed, the ripple effects of the crisis could have disastrous effects for both the economic stability of the country and the peace initiative designed to bring an end to the decades-long Kurdish insurgency.

The demonstrations ostensibly started with the government’s decision to uproot trees in central Istanbul—one of its few remaining green areas—to make way for a shopping mall. In reality, this turned out to be the spark that ignited the public’s accumulated frustrations.

There is unease with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian behavior and his incessant need to interfere with everything in Turkey, including public art, who wins what contract, where buildings go and even what commercials can be aired. No item is too small to warrant the prime minister’s attention. In some ways, one should marvel at his ability to keep so many balls in the air at the same time.

At the root of the problem is the combination of both his personality, which brooks little dissent and assumes that all problems can be solved not by dialogue but rather by just persisting on his way, and the emergent de facto one-party, one-man political system. The latter is not totally his fault. His party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won three consecutive elections, each time with a higher share of the vote.

The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, is a party in name only. It has proven incapable of appealing to voters, organizing itself to contest elections; and, most importantly, offering alternative policies to the AKP. Instead, it is in a state of constant turmoil as cadres fight for spoils that can at best be described as crumbs. The hapless state of the opposition propels the demonstrators: people have found out that they cannot count on the opposition to fight for their rights. Hence, the only outlet they have is the street.

Under current party laws, the party leader is sovereign and no one dares to criticize the leader for fear of being sidelined and cut off from the real spoils that power brings. Yet the Erdogan of today is not the same Erdogan who was in power in 2002. In the early days, he listened to his advisors, and more importantly, he allowed himself to be challenged and corrected by them.

So Erdogan finds himself all-knowing and all alone. Having surrounded himself with yes-men (and yes, they are all men), he has become a victim of groupthink. His advisors only reinforce what he has already decided to do. This is not to say that he is always wrong; some of his calls have been gutsy and courageous—and if he listened to his advisors, he would have never risked taking them. The attempt to end the Kurdish uprising is one such bold move.

But with success having gone to his head—perhaps rightly so, as he is the most successful Turkish politician ever—he has run the country as his own household. Some of the changes he brought about, especially in education and health care, are impressive—as is his intent to elevate Turkey’s status in the world. When he has found himself in a tight spot, his superb political instincts have always helped him escape or allow him to pivot. One of the best examples is the Libyan crisis; from a position where he adamantly militated against a Western intervention and support for Qaddafi, he did a 180-degree turn and became one of the most ardent foes of the Libyan strongman.

Somehow, this time his political instincts failed him. And the crisis is in Istanbul, the city that gave him his first political break by electing him mayor in 1994. But the crisis-management skills he’s displayed in this case have been abysmal. Rather than defusing the situation, his public pronouncements have further inflamed passions. By blaming foreigners—the most standard Turkish defense mechanism—he has diminished himself. What is particularly worrisome is that by any stretch of the imagination, this was not a major crisis that endangered the very existence of his party or rule or threatened the well being of the republic. It was all about a shopping mall.

Erdogan has now suffered a deep and self-inflicted wound. This is his first big error since he came to power in 2002. His aura of perfect stewardship is over. He will pay for it: he will be challenged more often, not by the opposition party but by civil society. This is not a bad thing.

For those invested in Turkey, the collapse of Erdogan’s crisis-management skills is a warning sign. As with these types of signals, one always looks ahead to the next crisis. He cannot afford to allow this one to fester: he should offer a genuine olive branch and show contrition. Otherwise the next crisis is just around the corner.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Randam. CC BY-SA 3.0.