Erdogan, the Anti-Ataturk
Mini Teaser: The legacy of the man who dragged Turkey into the twentieth century is at risk to the rival vision of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For ten years now the latter of these two flawed factions has had the upper hand, thanks mainly to one man—the determined, driven visionary, Erdogan, who wants to remake Turkey in his own image and his own imagination. A powerful orator and skilled political organizer with a strong autocratic streak, boundless energy and an obsessive sense of his (self-perceived) historic mission, Erdogan was described by one observer I spoke with in Istanbul this May as
a strange joke played on Turkey by history. If Kemal Ataturk had had an evil twin, it would have been someone exactly like Mr. Erdogan. Most of his views are mirror opposites of Ataturk’s, but he is the first overwhelming, larger-than-life figure in Turkish public life since the Ghazi [Ataturk] himself.
Like Ataturk, whose father was a minor government official, Erdogan rose from obscure origins through intelligence, drive and unbounded ambition. But there the similarity ends. Ataturk was, at most, an agnostic who felt that Islam, as practiced in the Ottoman Empire, was an enemy of progress; Erdogan is a devout Muslim who often waxes nostalgic about the good old imperial days. But that was after his party—the Justice and Development Party (AKP)—came to power in 2002 with a 34 percent plurality in the national parliamentary elections. On his way to the premiership, Erdogan had run as a democratic reformer, promising to fight entrenched corruption, open up the economy to competition and growth, and bring basic services such as improved schools and sanitation to the poorer regions of the country, just as he had done to Istanbul’s poorer neighborhoods as a reforming mayor.
Erdogan kept many of his promises. Government graft and cronyism still exist, but the swag is no longer the privileged preserve of a small, old elite. Corruption has not been eliminated, but it has been democratized. And Erdogan has devoted billions of lira to development projects, especially in poor, rural areas where they are most needed. As a self-made business millionaire himself, he also understood—and delivered on—economic and regulatory reforms following the earlier example of Turgut Ozal, mentioned above. Under Erdogan’s leadership—although not entirely due to it—in less than a decade the Turkish economy became the eighteenth largest in the world and per capita income nearly tripled, which helps to explain the AKP’s strong showings in the 2007 and 2011 elections (it received nearly 50 percent of the vote in the latter). It can truly be said that, as prime minister, Erdogan delivered on much of his public agenda. The problem is with his private agenda. According to Der Spiegel he once said, “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.”
After his party’s record victory in the 2011 elections, Erdogan seems to have decided he was approaching his station. Wall Street Journal correspondent Joe Parkinson summed it up rather neatly:
Since [the 2011 elections], the prime minister has sought to impose further restrictions on alcohol consumption and abortion and repeatedly called for all women to have at least three children to grow Turkey’s population. He has held forth on what citizens should eat at the family dinner table, and intervened to censor sex scenes in prime-time television series. His government has sought to muzzle the press; Turkey now jails more journalists than Iran or China.
He has also denounced raki, an anise-based liquor similar to the Greek ouzo—Turkey’s alcoholic beverage of choice for centuries—declaring ayran, a drink made from diluted yogurt, the new national beverage. He has even declared war on white bread, his personal preference being the brown variety. On the brighter side, unlike the unhinged Latin American dictator in Woody Allen’s comedy classic Bananas, he has yet to order everyone to wear their underpants over rather than under their trousers.
More significantly, Erdogan has pushed for constitutional changes that would reduce parliamentary powers—and those of the prime minister—while transforming the office of the president from a largely ceremonial post to an “imperial” presidency his friends liken to that of Charles de Gaulle and his opponents liken to that of Vladimir Putin. If he can get the desired changes, he intends to run for the presidency and, if elected, would be eligible to run again for a second five-year term, giving him ten years as an elected autocrat. As Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told the New York Times, Erdogan “has a highly majoritarian understanding of democracy. He believes that with 51 percent of the vote he can rule in an unrestrained fashion. He doesn’t want checks and balances.”
ALL OF these factors help to explain how what began as the protest of a few environmentalists to save a small wooded park in Istanbul metastasized in hours into mass protests involving hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of Turkish citizens in major cities across the country. In Washington before my recent trip to Turkey, and in Istanbul days before the demonstrations began and were brutally suppressed, I talked with Gareth Jenkins, a British journalist who has resided in Istanbul since 1989. Jenkins is an expert on the Erdogan government’s mass arrests and show trials of civilian and military critics of its regime, as well as its mounting efforts to intimidate journalists by arresting and trying reporters and applying economic pressure—fines, litigation and the threat of the same—to newspaper and broadcast owners.
Some of the allegations of planted evidence and rigged trials would be funny were it not for the human price paid by the innocent victims. In one case, a retired general returned to his home to find it had been ransacked and to learn he was about to be charged with conspiring to overthrow the state. He knew he was innocent, but he was told that investigators had found incriminating documents in his home that named him as a plotter. It turned out that the “evidence”—which must have been planted and was probably concocted—had nothing to do with him, but contained the similar name of another retired general who was probably innocent as well: two cheers for the gang that couldn’t frame straight. When I asked Jenkins why Erdogan’s power plays seemed to be growing more and more blatant, he mentioned that in November 2011 the prime minister underwent emergency surgery for the removal of a malignant growth in his intestines, that he had a second operation in February 2012, and that he is now heavily medicated and subject to frequent health checks—with a distinct possibility that his cancer will return. Heavy medication could explain some of Erdogan’s odder statements in recent weeks, such as his declaration that “there is now a menace which is called Twitter. . . . To me, social media is the worst menace to society” and that “the death of 17 people happened” during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York. (The latter was a totally false claim; there were no fatalities at all.) He also repeatedly has claimed that anti-Erdogan demonstrators desecrated an Istanbul mosque by smoking and drinking beer in it, even after the imam of the mosque insisted that no such thing happened and that the demonstrators had been invited to take shelter in the mosque, suffering from police-inflicted injuries and tear-gas inhalation.
Whatever Erdogan’s physical life expectancy may be, the mass demonstrations made it clear that time is not on his side. The prodemocracy demonstrators, overwhelmingly nonviolent and well behaved, were also overwhelmingly young, the vanguard of a rising generation of Turks who care about personal freedom and will not be bullied into silence. They represent a new political demographic that can’t be pinned down as strictly right wing or left wing, observant Muslim or secular. And they are a generation of young people with access to electronic communications no tyranny can fully block, with a strong awareness of their rights and of those who would deny them those rights.
But you can’t beat something with nothing. The absence of strong, credible opposition leaders has left the political stage to the highly skilled Erdogan, who sometimes reminds this observer of a cross between Huey Long, Margaret Thatcher and Juan Peron. In the short term, growing doubts and divisions among his parliamentary followers may put more of a brake on his aspirations than any number of peaceful demonstrators. But, as Jenkins points out, even if most of the protesters represent a specific section of society, the demonstrations that swept the country “are arguably Turkey’s first ever spontaneous, grassroots political movement . . . the participants [are] feeling empowered, determined but also bewildered by what is happening. They have never been here before. And neither has Turkey.”
One thing is certain. Except for the ones in the Dolmabahce Palace, the clocks in Turkey have started ticking again.
Aram Bakshian Jr. is a contributing editor at The National Interest. He served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history and the humanities.
Image: Flickr/Alp Enes Arslan. CC BY 2.0.Image: Pullquote: Like Peter the Great in Russia two centuries before, Ataturk was determined to overcome centuries of backwardness and decline, by brute force if necessary—and it often was.Essay Types: Essay