jump to navigation

Turkey Leader Tightens Grip, Putting Nation at Crossroads 27 juin 2013

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
Tags: , ,

The Wall Street Journal (USA) June 27, 2013, p. 14-15

Joe Parkinson

As mayor of Istanbul in the late 1990s, Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly read a poem that included the lines: « The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers. » The Islamist message earned him a few months in jail from Turkey’s military-backed secular government.

A few years later, Mr. Erdogan re-emerged in politics as a champion of liberal democracy calling for sweeping institutional reforms and closer ties with Europe, became prime minister and led Turkey through a decade of prosperity and influence.

Now, Mr. Erdogan has tacked back in the other direction, igniting weeks of protests from Turks concerned by what they see as Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate his power and Islamize public life. The shift has raised new questions among many Turkish voters about whether the prime minister is democrat or autocrat. How far Mr. Erdogan pushes his new agenda may determine the durability of Turkey’s revival.

The protests were ignited by Mr. Erdogan’s development plans for an Istanbul park but quickly spread into a national crisis. Mr. Erdogan on June 15 restored order by sending riot police to storm the park, sending protesters fleeing in a hail of tear gas and water cannons.

Consequences are starting to emerge. Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner, this week sought to block the start of new talks about Turkey entering the European Union. The U.S., which has called on Turkey to show restraint, is watching to see if the protests constrain Mr. Erdogan’s ability to pressure the Syrian regime that President Barack Obama wants to oust.

How the prime minister navigates the next stage could affect other Muslim countries that have viewed Mr. Erdogan’s brand of Islam-infused democracy as a model. Turkey was quick to champion the pro-democracy uprisings that unseated dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011. In Egypt, Turkey offered more than $2 billion to bolster the economy and dispatched leading officials and businesspeople to help President Mohammed Morsi reform the country’s secular-dominated institutions.

For Mr. Erdogan himself, the protests could hinder his effort to overhaul the constitution and create a more powerful presidency and broker a peace deal to end a three-decade long Kurdish insurgency. His pugilistic response to the demonstrations alienated secular and moderate allies, but played well with his socially conservative political base, analysts say.

Mr. Erdogan’s office declined requests for an interview. His supporters dismissed allegations that the prime minister is sliding toward a more religious authoritarianism, stressing that his record speaks for itself.

« Yes the prime minister is religious but his democratic credentials are impeccable. He is actually a soft character, he is a very caring individual and a very fatherly figure, » said Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s Europe minister. « The prime minister’s whole political career is built on crisis management. Every crisis has made him stronger. This will be no different. »

The current turmoil in Turkey follows a shift by Mr. Erdogan after his third election victory in 2011. Since then, 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, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In Istanbul, he has personally commissioned plans to build a landmark mosque on Taksim Square, the bastion of Turkey’s secularists and leftist groups. He has centralized power by taking control of his party list, purging it of more moderate voices and handpicking candidates for parliament who agree with his views, analysts say.

« The prime minister has shown us that he’s doubling down on an old hand and rekindling an old fight against what he sees as a secularist enemy. But this is also a political calculation, » said Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

Observers of Mr. Erdogan’s career point to numerous occasions where he has spotlighted or played down an Islamic agenda for political advantage. They say he has prevailed politically by navigating deftly to one side or the other of that line, uniting his base of Turkey’s religious conservatives—a majority of the electorate—with secular voters.

« He was always political even in school and spent his free time reading political books or at the mosque, » said Ismet Akac, a hardware store owner and lifelong friend who grew up with Mr. Erdogan in the hardscrabble Istanbul district of Kasimpasa. « He was always a great speaker and also very cunning. He knew how to adapt to get what he wanted. »

Following an adolescence steeped in religion and soccer, Mr. Erdogan entered politics in the 1970s as a follower of the Islamic National Salvation Party. It was a violent period. More than 5,000 people died in the daily street violence, mainly at the hands of armed left- and right-wing militants. Two of Mr. Erdogan’s close friends were killed—one in a bombing, the other shot.

« Religion was the only source » for the ideas that Mr. Erdogan and his friends shared at the time, says Mehmet Metiner, a fellow member of the youth wing of the National Salvation Party at the time. « We opposed radical secularism in a country where most of the population were Muslim. »

Mr. Erdogan gained nationwide attention when, campaigning for an Istanbul Municipal Council seat, he canvassed for votes in a licensed brothel. But he remained very conservative. In a 1992 speech, he said Turkey’s armed forces « should not be a slave to NATO, » and that « The EU’s real name is Union of Catholic Christian States. »

Amid broad discontent with political corruption, Mr. Erdogan won election for mayor of Istanbul in 1994 on a populist platform to fix the city’s ailing infrastructure.

His views changed when he was jailed for four months in 1999 following his recitation of the poem deemed an incitement to religious hatred.

He used his time in prison to read up on history and international affairs, honing a vision for a more moderate religious party that could reach beyond the pious voting bloc to merchants and nationalists, according to Hüseyin Besli, a former aide who was a legislator in parliament until 2011.

The symbolism of Mr. Erdogan’s jail term boosted Mr. Erdogan’s popularity with conservatives and liberals uneasy with the government’s heavy-handed approach to religious politicians. He was inundated with fan mail—13,000 letters, according to Mr. Besli—and a stream of visitors bearing gifts of baklava, the sugary pastries.

Once released, Mr. Erdogan and his partners Abdullah Gul, now Turkish president, and Bulent Arinc, now deputy prime minister, founded the Justice and Development Party to encompass a broader spectrum of Turkey’s center and right. They toured European capitals to convince policy makers their more moderate vision supported rather than shunned Turkey’s EU membership bid.

« Previously, Turkish Islamism was based on dividing the country between believers and nonbelievers, and there was a limit of how many votes they could win » says Ihsan Yilmaz, a columnist for Turkish pro-government daily, Zaman. « Erdogan and other young leaders wanted to broaden the appeal. »

The move capped a turn to the center for Mr. Erdogan, who had said in speeches and interviews in the early 1990s that it wasn’t possible to be both secular and Muslim. The pivot was sustained after Mr. Erdogan became prime minister in 2003. During his first term, he enacted sweeping reforms to democratize Turkey’s secularist-dominated institutions and bolstered ties with Brussels and Washington. He championed human-rights reforms and the opening of European Union entry talks, and he brought powerful generals to heel and put the military-dominated National Security Council, which had broad control of state affairs, under civilian control.

The breaking of the power of Turkey’s military, which had toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century, was perhaps Erdogan’s most striking achievement. Hundreds of officers were jailed after coup trials.

The prime minister’s popularity was boosted by a remarkable decade of economic growth that has seen a near tripling of nominal incomes. The average Turk today earns $10,500 a year, up from $3,500 when Mr. Erdogan took power.

Until 2011, that policy mix appeared to forge an unspoken pact between Mr. Erdogan and the Turkish electorate: He delivered strong economic growth, jobs and money, and voters let him shape what kind of democracy this majority Muslim nation of 74 million people became.

« Many people were unhappy with the direction of the government, but the trade-off was clear: economic growth and a government that was socially conservative but didn’t encroach too much on lifestyles, » said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat with the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels.

But while seeking election for a third time in 2011—which he ultimately won with his biggest margin yet—Mr. Erdogan gave a speech that many analysts say foreshadowed a more autocratic and Islamist style of governance.

Before tens of thousands of party loyalists in Ankara, Mr. Erdogan said that following a June election victory he would transition into an « Ustalik, » or « masterful, » phase.

« God willing, we will reconstruct Turkey. The apprenticeship started in 2002. In 2007, the foremanship began. Until when? Until 12th of June. After that date, the mastership will begin, » Mr. Erdogan said, as the big crowd chanted « buyuk usta » or grand master.

The masterful period has seen political power increasingly centralized around Mr. Erdogan, who has final word on every issue. He has stifled dissent, using a broad coup investigation designed to subdue the military to purge other enemies, including opposition journalists and Kurdish activists.

« That ‘masterful’ speech showed us that Erdogan was no longer fighting reactive battles, but would from now on do big things to redraw Turkey as its paramount ruler, » says Ziya Meral, from the Foreign Policy Center, a London-based think tank. « The switch had been completed and a new system had superseded the old guard: The same Turkey but under new management. »

In a series of combative speeches, Mr. Erdogan has blamed unrest on terrorist groups backed by foreign powers and labeled demonstrators as « looters » and « bums. » He told a large crowd of supporters earlier this month: « They beat my girls wearing headscarves…they entered our mosques with their beer and their shoes. »

In a speech earlier this month in Ankara aimed at those who have urged him to adopt a more conciliatory tone, the prime minister said: « Sorry, Tayyip Erdogan is not going to change. »

There are early signs that stance could be backfiring. The only opinion poll to be released since the protests from Turkey’s MetroPoll organization on Monday showed that 50% of respondents felt the government was becoming more authoritarian, with 54% saying that it was interfering with their lifestyles. According to the survey of 2,800 people, support for Mr. Erdogan’s party has declined in the wake of the protests, though it remains by far the most popular party.

Some observers of Mr. Erdogan say that his charisma has been the key to his success, but could also be a roadblock that could frustrate reaching a resolution.

« Erdogan is at his root a pragmatist and not unlike Bill Clinton—he would make you feel like you were the only person in the room, » said Jenny White, a professor at Boston University who once shadowed Mr. Erdogan when he was Istanbul mayor. « Erdogan is a product of Turkish culture that is characterized by militant masculinity that can easily turn to violence. It’s a loaded gun that can be manipulated and pointed, which makes it dangerous. »

Emre Peker, Ayla Albayrak and Yeliz Candemir contributed to this article.


No comments yet — be the first.

Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:

Logo WordPress.com

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte WordPress.com. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

%d blogueurs aiment cette page :