BACKGROUND: The Taksim upheaval took both Turkey and the world by surprise. The events did not fit with prevailing views of Turkey as an economic miracle where the somewhat demagogic but popular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reigned supreme, extending Turkey’s sway across the Middle East and providing a model for the countries of the “Arab Spring.” And while no one could have foretold that a clash over a few trees in an Istanbul park would generate such tumult, the writing had actually been on the wall for some time that Erdoğan was overreaching.
Indeed, in the year before Erdoğan re-launched his Kurdish opening in January 2013, his increasingly combative and overbearing style had begun to alienate many, especially the influential liberal elite in the country. The momentous implications of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) nevertheless led many critics to bite their tongues. But in parallel, discontent at Erdoğan’s efforts to remake the country’s political system to fit his own ambitions of power continued to grow. As reported in the 20 February 2012 issue of the Turkey Analyst, Erdoğan’s coalition had begun to crack, with both President Abdullah Gül and the influential Fethullah Gülen movement distancing themselves from Erdoğan.
It is against this background that the Taksim protests grew into a countrywide movement targeting Erdoğan personally , rather than the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) or Islamic conservatism as such. Accumulated frustration with Erdoğan was exacerbated by police brutality that was obviously carried out at Erdoğan’s direct orders.
Indeed, Erdoğan’s reaction to the protests begs for an explanation. While President Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç were trying to calm feelings, Erdoğan repeatedly overruled them with his harsh and unrepentant rhetoric, every time followed by brutal crackdowns on protestors, providing new fuel to a protest movement that may otherwise have begun to dissipate. While Erdoğan was gradually convinced to suspend the Taksim redevelopment project, he instead rallied large crowds of his own, while taking every opportunity to blame the unrest on a wide conspiracy involving unnamed foreign powers, the international media, and the “Interest rate lobby”, intended to weaken Turkey. His main loyalist newspaper, Yeni Şafak, extended the conspiracy to right-wing American think tanks, AIPAC, and the Jewish lobby more generally.
Several factors explain this harshness. First and foremost, Erdoğan has thrived on confrontation, and built his power on division, firmly convinced that a majority would always be behind him. This image of a ‘street fighter’ is one Erdoğan is proud of, often advertising his origins in the tough working class Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa. But secondly, people once close to Erdoğan maintain that he is no longer the man they knew. Five or ten years ago, Erdoğan would listen to advice, keenly ponder how a policy or speech would be received, and discuss how best to present it to voters. But over time, he stopped seeking or listening to advice, his manners became more imperious, and he began acting on impulses, holding forth on various subjects in front of crowds and cameras, often on how people should lead their lives. Various theories exist to explain this change – the loss of checks and balances within the party and government after 2007 (See 12 March 2008 issue of the Turkey Analyst), increasing comfort as domestic threats to his power were neutralized, power going to his head after a decade as prime minister, or even the December 2010 operation to remove a malignant growth in his intestines, which some see as a turning point in his personal evolution.(See 3 June 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst) But there is broad agreement that Erdoğan has become, in a word, somewhat unhinged.
There is also a perfectly rational explanation for his recent behavior – at least for a person formed by the long struggle of Turkey’s Islamic conservative movement. That is, the belief that his predecessors were destroyed because they were “soft.” As Turkish Islamists put it, Adnan Menderes (prime minister between 1950 and 1960) bended; he was hanged by the military in 1960. Turgut Özal (prime minister and president during 1983-1993) was pliable; he was poisoned in 1993 (a conspiracy theory accepted as truth by the Islamist movement). Necmettin Erbakan (Islamist prime minister in 1996-1997) did not stand up to the military; he was forced to resign in 1997. Erdoğan appears to actually believe that an unlikely assortment of domestic and foreign enemies was behind the Taksim protests; the obvious conclusion is that he must show strength and strike back hard to avoid meeting the fate of Menderes, Özal or Erbakan. With this logic – eerily reminiscent of the siege mentality of his Kemalist predecessors – we can expect Erdoğan to continue to resort to force and repression, to an even larger degree than he has so far.
IMPLICATIONS: Already before the Taksim unrest, the AKP had slowly been falling in the polls. The Metropoll published periodically by Today’s Zaman showed the AKP down from more than 50 percent after the 2011 elections to around 40 percent before the unrest; it is now down to 35 percent. Even when undecided voters are distributed, the AKP would get less than 40 percent, and might well lose its parliamentary majority if elections were held today. Moreover, the population does not seem to buy into Erdoğan’s conspiracy theories: when asked whom they blamed for the unrest, 20 percent answered “the government”, 16 percent said Erdoğan personally; and a measly three percent answered “foreign forces”. Further, 54 percent of the population agreed that the government was interfering too much in their private lives.
Erdoğan’s supporters, putting on a brave face, argue that the prime minister is consolidating his support, pointing at the enormous crowds he has gathered in Ankara and Istanbul since the protest wave began. But they are likely deluding themselves. While no one should question Erdoğan’s continued popularity among important segments of Turkish society, those rallies were above all a display of the AKP’s organizational skill, as the widespread use of municipal buses to ferry people in from hundreds of miles away indicate. The polling that is available suggests that Erdoğan is widely seen, even among his own supporters, as having badly mismanaged the crisis.
The unrest has also underlined the divisions within the Islamic conservative movement. President Abdullah Gül appeared measured and statesmanlike, emerging strengthened from the events. And far from pointing to conspiracy theories of various sorts, he and Deputy Prime Minister Arınç have displayed empathy toward the protesters. Similarly, unlike mainstream media, the media outlets of the Gülen movement have covered the events, and commentators in these media have been critical of Erdogan’s confrontational response to the protests. The most important implication is the end of Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions – at least, insofar as they implied remaking Turkey into a presidential republic. Not even his most ardent supporters now believe that Erdoğan could push a constitutional amendment – let alone a new constitution – through parliament. That procedure requiring a secret ballot, Erdoğan would likely see at least a fifth of his own parliamentary group vote against him. And even in a referendum, Erdoğan would likely lose, as over two in three Turks oppose a presidential system.
Thus, Erdoğan faces the novelty of having no good options. As he clearly has no intention to retire, he essentially has two alternatives: seeking nomination to the presidency in 2014 under the current constitution; or staying on as Prime Minister and campaigning for a fourth term in 2015.
Seeking the presidency has two problems. First, while Turkey’s president has considerable powers, the president does not control the government, the ruling party, or the flow of money in the country. Both Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel tried to appoint pliable place-holders as prime ministers; both failed utterly, rapidly losing control over both their parties and the government. This is exactly why Erdoğan wanted to change the constitution. Second, Erdoğan faces the challenge of Gül. The Constitutional Court has ruled that President Gül has the right to seek a second term, and Gül has indicated that he will not simply stand back for Erdoğan as he has done in the past. He may be amenable to swapping positions with Erdoğan – but again, this would prevent Erdoğan from maintaining control over the party and the government. Erdoğan is known to strongly oppose Gül succeeding him as Prime Minister and party leader.
In this light, it may seem more appealing to stay on as prime minister. Erdoğan’s problem is his own decision to impose term limits to all offices in the AKP, a principle he has repeatedly pledged to honor. Yet in practice, he could have that rule changed overnight, freeing him to campaign for a fourth term in 2015. He would only have to mitigate the damage to his prestige that such a move would generate. Here, continued unrest blamed on foreign forces may provide exactly the excuse needed to “maintain stability” by ensuring continuity. At present, this is the most likely scenario, but an election victory is by no means guaranteed. Erdoğan’s turn back to a more Islamist profile reminiscent of the parties of the Milli Görüş tradition is a risky gamble; Islamism has a constituency of perhaps 20-25 percent at most, which means that half of the AKP’s voters in 2011 would be attracted by a new, centrist alternative that may very well emerge.
CONCLUSIONS: Facing municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections between March 2014 and June 2015, Turkey seems likely to be consumed by the internal struggle for power for the foreseeable future. And the unrest is unlikely to stop: the “wall of fear” in Turkish society appears to have been broken, and demonstrators may have gotten the taste of street politics. Faced with continued protests of various types, Erdoğan and his loyalists are likely to intensify repression and, where needed, further escalate the use of force. However, it is highly unlikely that Erdoğan could restore the aura of invincibility that he appeared to have only a month ago. If he does not change course and adopts a conciliatory stance – and that does not seem probable – the dangerously confrontational course that Erdogan has set Turkey on will create momentum for the search for a moderate alternative within the Islamic conservative movement.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst.