Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Erdogan: No More, Mr Popular Guy !

Kasimpasa, the hardscrabble Istanbul neighborhood where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up, is known for producing men who have a prickly sense of honor, are easily offended and like to fight. Erdogan brought that assertive, take-no-prisoners style into politics, and it has helped him keep his friends in line and his critics cowed. No longer: the tens of thousands of Turks who have poured onto the streets in the past week are telling their Prime Minister they are really tired of the Kasimpasa leadership style.

Many Turks hoped they had left that style behind when, more than a decade ago, they finally manage to consolidate democracy and curb the power of autocratic generals who had long ruled their country from behind the scenes. The leader who brought them to this promised land was Erdogan. But more recently, buoyed by his success at the polls and by the utter lack of a coherent political opposition, Erdogan has reverted back to type, acquiring the image of a headstrong, arrogant bully. He seems perpetually angry, eager to threaten his critics but rarely ready to hear them. He does not wear a uniform, but he believes he can take Turkey wherever he wishes and he recalls the harsh, dour generals.

Remarkable transformations have reshaped Turkey over the past two decades. The long-troubled economy is booming, and Turkey has a dramatically increased role in world politics. But perhaps the most radical transformation of all is the fact that Turks no longer accept the arrogance of power and Endogan's showing deference to his Islamic base by leaning toward a growing Islamisation of his country. What started as protest over a few trees grew into a full blown national crisis. Angry environmentalist and leftist activists camped out at a sliver of greenery off Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square called Gezi Park, which city planners intended to raze to make way for a shopping mall. Demolishing Gezi Park's grove for another commercial development was just the last straw. Soon the protest spread to the capital, Ankara, and some smaller cities.

While it seems Erdogan's support has suffered, his AKP party, which is pro-business, still has an overwhelming mandate from last year's election, with a strong support among the growing middle class and in the Anatolian hinterland. The protesters, now from a range of ethnic, economic and political backgrounds, share a fear that their elected government is slipping back into the authoritarian mode. The mall plan would not in itself have set off such a strong reaction but many decisions, small in themselves, added up. Like restricting evening alcohol sales, naming a new bridge after a murderer of members of the Alevi sect who make up 15% of Turkey's population. Every month brings what seems to be a tightening of political space. Journalists criticize the government at their peril. Dozens were arrested over protest Tweets, accused of inciting ''hatred.''

Worst of all, in the eyes of many Turks, is the prospect that Erdogan is building a lifetime power base. He is maneuvering to change the constitution to greatly strenghten the office of the President, for which he intends to run. His tenure as Prime Minister is up next year and can't be renewed. He has gone so far as the suggest that he wants to be in power when Turkey celebrates its 100th birthday in 2023. It will be interesting to see if Ataturk's secular society hasn't been turned into another autocratic Islamic Republic by then. Still, the protesters are not backing down to Erdogan's threats to ''to settle accounts with these extremist elements and make them pay for their lawlessness!'' Last night  the largest crowd in the twelve days of protest assembled in Gezi Park. It is estimated that over 100,000 came together to show their defiance.

The Way I See It....Erdogan is an elected leader whose achievements are indisputable. But his Kasimpasa style is putting his legacy at risk. He should heed his own Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was more conciliatory and warned that the protests ''would damage the reputation of our country, which is admired both in the region and the world.''  Tellingly, Davutoglu made his comment on Twitter.

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