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Local hero Erdogan struts national stage after decade as PM 14 mars 2013

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK)  Thursday, March 14, 2013, p. 5

By Daniel Dombey in Istanbul

Far beyond his old neighbourhood the prime minister has conquered a country, writes Daniel Dombey

In the working class Istanbul district of Kasimpasha, they remember Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an indomitable force – in the classroom, on the street and on the football pitch.

« He is the tough guy of Kasimpasha, » says Ibrahim, a leather jacketed 60-year-old, of the man he once played football against, who today marks his 10th anniversary as prime minister. « You would foul him and he wouldn’t so much as look back at you. »

Sitting on a spindly chair that quivers as trucks rumble past, Ibrahim exudes local pride in Mr Erdogan, who arrived in Kasimpasha as a child and regularly returns as the most powerful politician since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

« The roads, the health system, the rights of the oppressed! » Ibrahim exclaims. « He has helped the poor and become the biggest leader in the Middle East. »

Others in the hardscrabble Palace Teahouse butt in to shout their approval, not least Yasar, the owner, who packs a 9mm pistol and remembers when the future prime minister sold Turkish bagels on the street for pocket money and hid from his devout father at the football club.

This is the prime minister’s heartland, a part of the world where support for him is as fervent as ever. Turkey has been transformed since Mr Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party won power in 2002 and he claimed the premiership a few months later. But among those sipping their tea on the Palace’s porch, there is the sense that the 59-year old remains one of them, despite complaints elsewhere of heavy-handed rule.

« Before Erdogan it was just an elitist group running the country by force, » says Nevzat, as a man selling dishcloths wanders up the street. « He came out of nowhere . . . he just told the people that the power of democracy comes from the people themselves. »

Indeed, the prime minister still rails against the old secular establishment, « sipping its alcoholic drinks by the Bosphorus », although he has recently softened his tone on the country’s once notoriously coup-prone army after hundreds of officers were imprisoned.

Far beyond his old neighbourhood, Mr Erdogan has conquered a country. He remains the self-styled champion of those excluded or alienated by the old order – whether religious conservatives or urban and rural poor alike. He has attracted many more who identify his rule with the growing prosperity of the past decade, during which time the economy has forged ahead after a lost decade in the 1990s, although growth has recently slowed and is heavily dependent on short-term foreign funds.

While outside Kasimpasha there is a steady stream of complaints about an allegedly authoritarian strain in Mr Erdogan’s rule – human rights groups say that Turkey is now the world’s leading jailer of journalists – in the Palace Teahouse such criticism is given short shrift.

« If a head of family puts forward an idea and others do not obey, then of course he has to do something, » says Ibrahim. « Erdogan is the head of 75m people. »

Ibrahim adds that he is from the Roma ethnic group and his community enjoys more rights than before, underlining the paradox that Turkey has become more liberal in many ways during Mr Erdogan’s rule, particularly towards minorities.

Indeed, the prime minister is deeply engaged in talks to address the country’s biggest problem of all – its Kurdish conflict, in which 35,000 people have died over three decades, even as he denounces the media for being insufficiently supportive.

« It is like the Bosphorus, which has two currents flowing in opposite directions, » says Hakan Altinay, chairman of the Open Society Foundation Turkey. « At the top is Erdogan, lashing out as everyone, no one spared his wrath, but, at the bottom, society seems to be mellowing, more accustomed to difference. »

Although Turkey’s cultural wars, which pit the secularists against religious conservatives, appear to have mellowed, Mr Altinay worries it is still not clear how far Mr Erdogan, who says he wants « to raise a religious generation », wants to go.

There are few such concerns back in Kasimpasha, where some of Mr Erdogan’s oldest acquaintances watch horseraces and play cards in a café full of mementoes of the prime minister.

As for Mr Erdogan’s barely veiled ambitions to stay in power until 2024, there are no objections. « I think 65, 70 per cent of Turkey would want him to stay another 10 years, » Ibrahim says. « At least. »

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