Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Man from the Planet Ankara

He started like Obama and ended like Bush, say his critics. How Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is betraying his reforms. By Michael Thumann

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: Wikipedia)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is finding it increasingly lonely at the top

​​ Recently, an infuriated Turk fired a shotgun at a group of Kurds, including children, who were demonstrating on the streets of Istanbul in support of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). What did the prime minister have to say about the incident? "I recommend patience," Tayyip Erdogan advised the enraged gunman, "but how long can we remain patient? When the lives of our fellow citizens are threatened and citizens have the means of protecting themselves, then they will do so."That sentence hit like a bombshell. Has the prime minister called for people to take the law into their own hands or not? Everyone is left wondering, yet he has not retracted the statement.

In the spring of 2009, Tayyip Erdogan will have been in office for six years. He has already made more of a mark on his country than most of his predecessors. It is a well-known fact that the second terms of office of great reformers often proceed less smoothly than the first ones. However, instead of gradually slipping off course, Erdogan is making a radical about-face. All of his recent statements take him further away from what he has already accomplished. His speeches upset those Turks and foreign observers who he had previously won over with his pragmatic reforms. Erdogan’s triumphant victory has transformed into the tragedy of a man who set out to change the old regime, and is now being swallowed up by it.

Demonstrators protest against the ban of the AKP (photo: dpa)
Last summer the interior political conflict in Turkey came to a head when the chief prosecutor's office announced that he would push for a ban on Erdogan and the AKP

​​ At the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Istanbul in early November, a tired Erdogan stepped up to the microphone. His eyes were small, with rings under them, and his mouth looked small, but he uttered some very big words. "Terror," he said, meaning the Kurdish PKK. The audience included captains of industry, business people, finance ministers and bankers. They had come to talk about the world economic crisis, yet Erdogan rambled on for a whole 25 minutes about "terror." His voice was staccato-like, invasive and threatening, as if he could sense the disinterest in the room. Then he briefly tagged on a few words about the financial crisis, which is allegedly not so bad in Turkey. He stepped down from the stage a weary man, leaving behind an exhausted audience. "What planet is this man on?" asked one of the economic experts.

The planet Ankara: a world that may be inhabited, but is hardly made for people. Wide expressways for cars, high barbed wire fences and massive ministries – this is a rough turf for unwanted outsiders. Erdogan, a former Islamist, was banned from holding political office, although his Justice and Development Party (AKP) held the absolute majority after the parliamentary elections in 2002. However, a rapid change in the law cleared the way for him to run for parliament, and a few days after his election victory he was named prime minister. He has withstood a number of attempts to oust him from this office. Then, in March 2008, the chief prosecutor's office filed an indictment against the prime minister and the AKP for anti-constitutional activities, but lacked one judge’s vote to ban the politician and his party from politics. Instead, the Constitutional Court condemned the party as a hotbed of anti-secular activities. In Turkey, a courageous reformer always stands with one foot in prison.

"You'll pay for this!"

What is the best course in such a situation? You fight back. Instead of attacking a powerful opponent in the state apparatus, however, Erdogan has decided to take on journalists who are critical of his policies. When the media empire of Aydin Dogan attacked Erdogan, often with unfair allegations, the prime minister reacted in an unstatesmanlike manner. "You'll pay for this!" He raged against Dogan's journalists and their master. Earlier, he took to court a number of caricaturists who had portrayed him as a cat. Now he's taken seven reporters from the opposition press and ejected them from the prime minister’s press pool. The reformer prime minister is engaging in constant scuffles with the freedom of the press.

This is astonishing for a man who has achieved so much, in part because he was able to take advantage of the limited liberties in Turkey's democracy. His roots go back to Kasimpasa, a poor quarter in the Golden Horn of Istanbul. Erdogan, the son of a seaman from the Black Sea coast, sold sesame buns on the city's dusty streets. He kept one hand with the change in his left pants pocket. If someone shortchanged him, he paid them back with a fist from his right pants pocket. He has always had a fairly explosive temperament.

"Imam Beckenbauer"

Erdogan made a career for himself on the football pitch. They called him "Imam Beckenbauer". But his strictly religious father was not happy with the athletic shorts that he wore. Erdogan discarded his football garb, studied economics and politics, and joined the team of the pro-Islamic Milli-Görüs movement.

Demonstrations against the headscarf ban (photo: dpa)
Erdogan has made endless promises to reform the constitution, but has only amended the article on Islamic headscarves

​​ He didn't alter Turkey as an Islamist, though, but rather as a pragmatist. While serving as the mayor of Istanbul, he opened the first underground commuter line, converted the heating system from dirty coal to clean natural gas, and made Istanbul greener by planting trees. As the prime minister he surprised everyone who mistrusted the outsider. In an interview with DIE ZEIT five years ago, he said: "We want to enter the EU, and we are prepared to do everything to achieve this, even if it hurts." And the way he sat there, well groomed, wearing a dark blue blazer in front of a photo of Atatürk, people believed him, too. Erdogan tossed out the criminal code that was an affront to human dignity, he promoted women's rights like no one since Atatürk, and he enhanced the rights of Kurds and improved Turkey's relations with its hostile neighbors. And he initiated accession negotiations with the EU. "He started off like Obama" says Fehmi Koru, one of his allies in the media, "and ended like Bush."

Fehmi Koru is one of the many who are parting ways with the Turkish leader these days. "He should be ashamed," thundered Erdogan in public. This quip was aimed not only at Koru. While a number of high-ranking AKP politicians have resigned, others have gone on record as saying that they won't leave the party, but intend to focus more on their own professional careers outside the political sphere. Liberal journalists, conservative commentators and television presenters are turning their back on Erdogan, who is finding it increasingly lonely at the top. He lacks a close confidante with backbone, someone who can also contradict him. Who is still advising him?

"Go home if you don't like it!"

Ten days ago, the Erdogans were invited to a private apartment in Istanbul along with artists and intellectuals. People were asked to leave their political affiliations at the door. Tayyip and Emine Erdogan presented themselves as an entertaining couple. She even interrupted him from time to time. But when she spoke, he kept quiet. Politeness? Perhaps. But what was even more important was the distribution of roles. In the outside world, Tayyip can rant and rave. But in their marriage it's Emine who wears the pants, at least that's how it looked. Emine reportedly also advises him. But she has a reputation for being rather apolitical, not someone who pursues reform ideals – not someone who would call on him to stand his ground.

Ermine Erdogan (photo: AP)
The political advisor behind the man? Erdogan's wife Emine

​​ Erdogan has not stood his ground. His reforms have run out of steam. He has made endless promises to reform the constitution. Instead, he only amended the article on Islamic headscarves. He promised to improve freedom of speech, but another 47 people face charges under Article 301, which restricts people’s rights to express themselves. He swore to protect the rights of Kurds and Alawites. Now the police are clubbing them down. Why?

Erdogan sympathizers point to the attempts to remove him from office and the elections as reform killers. Last year, he had to survive parliamentary elections, and this March he will have to face regional elections. On top of this, there is Europe's duplicity with regard to Turkey: an ever-increasing number of new hurdles are thrown up while Croatia continues along the path toward full membership. This is compounded by his "privileged" yet distant partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the open anti-Turkish hostility of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "They don't want him in the club," says an aide close to the prime minister, "and that hurts him deeply." But another explanation could be that Erdogan has simply lost interest in joining. His spokesman Çemil Çicek, who guards his right flank, said a few days ago: "Turkey has other problems beside Europe." What would those be?

The Garbage, the City and Death

Recently, the prime minister traveled to Hakkari, deep in Kurdish territory, near the Iraqi border. When he arrived in this city, he was confronted with refuse and death. As a special greeting to the prime minister, the Kurdish administration had allowed trash to pile up in the streets, and not far from Hakkari, the PKK had recently murdered 17 soldiers. Erdogan, who three years ago promised to tackle "Turkey’s Kurdish problem," now paid them back with interest. "We say: one nation, one flag, one county, one state. Who can be against that? Anyone who doesn't like that can go." There are two interesting aspects to this speech. Erdogan applies different standards than he did in his speech in Cologne nine months ago, where he warned Turks living in Germany of the dangers of assimilation. Now he is warning the Kurds and assuming the rhetoric of Turkish nationalists.

Turkish tanks near the border to Iraq (photo: AP)
Erdogan had promised to tackle the Kurdish problem. Meanwhile, he has adopted a far less conciliatory tone

​​ This speech was no gaffe; he repeated it a number of times. Erdogan, the notorious outsider, has tragically landed in the vortex of national sentiment in Turkey. He wanted to change the secular and authoritarian order under which he, as a Sunni Muslim, had suffered along with the Alawites and Christians. Now he is submitting to the system. While he launches into his "one nation" speech, public prosecutors are calling for 25-year prison terms for 15-year-old Kurdish demonstrators. The army is jubilant and has for the first time submitted a report to the prime minister on its anti-terror campaign. Although the press has been criticizing the army, Erdogan has given the military his full support. Things have never been more harmonious.

This alliance is changing Turkey. Erdogan affects nationalists like cough medicine. His defense minister praised the forced resettlement of over a million Greeks and Armenians when the Turkish state was founded in 1923. At a discussion on clashes between Kurds and the police, a relatively unknown AKP man, sitting on the last row of benches at the back, said in a raspy voice: "I am no fan of shooting, but I would love to blow away those who are attacking my state and my nation." The prime minister says nothing about such tirades while Turkish liberals simply cannot believe their ears. Erdogan has turned his back on them and all those who believed that he could lead Turkey into Europe.

Michael Thumann

© Michael Thumann / Die Zeit / Qantara.de 2008

Michael Thumann is the chief Middle East correspondent for the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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