Saturday, June 08, 2013

Erdogan in trouble? Maybe, maybe not ... and maybe that's not the right question.

Some analyses of the current protests in Turkey have focused on what they imply about the role and prospects of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Focusing too exclusively Erdogan could be misleading and superficial, it seems to me, but on the other hand that aspect of the situation is definitely worth considering. Turkey's AK Party is far from a one-man show, but it's true that Erdogan has become a central figure in Turkish politics, to an extent perhaps unmatched since Ataturk.  And it may be significant that some other AK leaders, including President Abdullah Gul, have responded to the protest wave in a more measured and conciliatory manner than Erdogan.

Or that may not prove to be significant after all.  And it may also be that, in the long run, the AK 'base' will turn out to be a lot more immoderate than any of the current leaders, who have had to proceed cautiously so far in the process of consolidating power.  But back to Erdogan ...

Foreign Affairs has two articles on this subject, with titles that appear at first glance to point in diametrically opposite directions. One piece, by Halil Karaveli, is titled "Erdogan in Trouble". The other piece, by Steven Cook, is titled "Keep Calm, Erdogan" and subtitled "Why the Prime Minister Has Nothing to Fear".  But the interesting thing is that if one actually reads these two pieces, their analyses are not quite as drastically different as the titles suggest.  Cook and Karaveli don't fully agree, but they do emphasize some of the same themes, and their analyses overlap in some intriguing ways.  So reading the two pieces in tandem offers some food for thought.

=> Some highlights from Steven Cook's discussion in "Keep Calm, Erdogan":
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, he did what successful big city mayors do -- he made life a little easier for the millions of residents of his beautiful, maddening megalopolis. Erdogan cleaned up the garbage in the streets, unknotted traffic, and literally cleared the air by introducing environmentally friendlier public transportation. Always one for grand ambitions, during his tenure at City Hall the future prime minister made a now often repeated statement to a journalist from the daily Milliyet, “Democracy,” he declared, “is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

These stories go a long way toward explaining the demonstrations against Turkey’s prime minister over the past several days. [....] He never indicated the “destination” toward which he thought Turkey's democracy should be headed. But 15 years later, many Turks have drawn the conclusion that Erdogan had always intended to step off the tram as soon he had accumulated unrivaled power.

The prime minister’s party, Justice and Development (AKP), was founded in August 2001 after young reformists broke from the old guard of Turkey’s Islamist movement. Even then, Erdogan was a first among equals, but he had important associates, especially Abdullah Gul, who now occupies the presidential palace and remains officially above politics. Yet, in time, Erdogan became the party and the party became him. Not that Turkish voters seemed to mind: the AKP has had a majority in parliament since November 2002.

Trees were only a proximate cause of the first full-fledged political crisis of Erdogan’s remarkable decade long run. For many of the people who turned out to protest over the last four days, Erdogan wore out his welcome from the very start. Supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents a peevish, reckless, and visionless group of Kemalist elites and alleged social democrats, oppose the AKP on principle. [....] Yet the anger went beyond the typically narrow interests of Turkey’s party politics. The demonstrators were not “marginal” as Erdogan asserted, but rather profoundly frustrated because they have been marginalized.

[....] With a majority in the parliament and a vast reservoir of public support, the prime minister plowed ahead with plans to transform the country politically and economically, dismissing criticism with a high-hand and arresting and silencing peaceful political opponents. This shattered his coalition as liberals fled, Kurds drifted away, and big business cowered in fear of a powerful government that had demonstrated its willingness to punish firms that failed to heel to the prime minister and his party.

Even though Erdogan has resorted to intimidation and other authoritarian tactics, he keeps racking up impressive electoral victories. In June 2011, voters returned the prime minister and his party to power with 49.95 percent of the vote. Even today, as the tear gas continues to fly, there is no question that Erdogan would win an election. It is hard to see how the moribund opposition can capitalize on Erdogan’s missteps, and although AKP supporters may be watching developments with consternation, they are not ditching their membership cards. This is because, consistent with Erdogan’s record as mayor of Istanbul, he has done many things as prime minister to make the lives of Turks appreciably better. Advances in transportation, health care, and economic opportunity are profoundly important to a growing middle class who returns the favor in the form of votes.
All that should sound very reassuring both to the AK Party and to Erdogan in particular. But Cook's analysis does have a sting in its tail.
Still, Turkey is decidedly split. Erdogan governs one half the country -- his supporters -- and intimidates the other. His political lineage and personal background have instilled within him a certain amount of paranoia. Turkey’s Islamists, no matter how powerful they become, are always on the lookout for the next coup or round of repression.  [....]  The problem for Erdogan is that, despite his best efforts, the tram that he referred to when he was mayor of Istanbul stopped in Taksim Square, where a lot of Turks are signaling they will no longer tolerate his authoritarian turn.
Maybe. Whether or not that conclusion has an element of wishful thinking remains to be seen.

=>  Karaveli, for his part, takes some of the themes tossed out in Cook's last few paragraphs and pushes them further.  His assessment, basically, is that the AK Party is almost certainly not in trouble, but Erdogan himself might be. Significant elements in the AK leadership may be getting nervous about the prospect of further enhancing Erdogan's personal power, and now that Erdogan has served his historical role in bringing the AK Party to power, they may want a more reassuring and less polarizing figure to represent the AKP.

Is Karaveli on to something important?  I don't know, but he makes portions of this analysis sound at least half-plausible, so here are some highlights:
In some circles, it is almost a matter of faith that the ongoing protests in Turkey will not have any serious political consequences for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As CFR Fellow Steven Cook wrote on Foreign this week, “Even today, as the tear gas continues to fly, there is no question that Erdogan would win an election.” The assumption is that the prime minster can still rely on at least the passive support of the 50 percent of the population that cast their votes for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the last election, held in 2011. Even if they are not entirely happy with his behavior, the thinking goes, they are not ready to withdraw their backing -- good news for Erdogan, who would like to crown himself president next year. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Erdogan’s supporters are with him for the long haul. In the end, the Taksim Square protests -- and the prime minister’s response to them -- have likely marked the end of an era.

As many have pointed out, the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities mainly hail from the secular and liberal urban middle class. Yet they are far from alone in their weariness of Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. Religious conservatives, the AKP’s main voter base, are uneasy with it, too. [....] And even if that constituency is not about to abandon the AKP, which still represents its interests, it might abandon Erdogan. As the protests die down, religious conservatives will probably throw their weight behind Turkish President Abdullah Gul -- who was one of the co-founders of the AKP but who has also become Erdogan’s rival in recent years -- if he decides to stand for reelection in 2014. And that is an outcome that Erdogan has been trying to forestall.

As if the loss of some of the religious conservatives were not bad enough, Erdogan also stands to lose ground among more secular conservatives. Since his reelection in 2011, he has been pursuing an explicitly ideological Islamic agenda. He has promised to “raise a pious youth,” made an attempt to ban abortion, and overseen a drift in the education system toward religious conservatism. Recently, his government imposed new restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. [....]

Erdogan’s own party members sense the changing tide. Indeed, even before the protests, there was widespread uneasiness within the AKP ranks. Most AKP parliamentarians had little enthusiasm for Erdogan’s plan to change the constitution and introduce an executive presidency. His scheme would have concentrated all power into the hands of a supreme leader, a position that Erdogan covets, basically neutering all other government officials. The prime minister’s handling of the protests has now made party members even more nervous. As Erdogan lashed out -- calling those who took to the streets “marauders,” extremists, and foreign agents, and threatening retaliation -- Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc issued an apology to the demonstrators and said that the authorities should have tried to meet their demands. Another AKP representative, Kadir Topbas, the mayor of Istanbul, admitted that the municipality had committed a grave mistake. And Gul made a principled defense of the right to protest from the outset, a reminder that voting is not the only democratic right.

It is true that Erdogan has traditionally thrived on polarization; earlier attacks on secularists have served to keep the religious conservatives mobilized behind the AKP. But this last week might be a bridge too far. [....] So although it is unlikely that the protests will force Erdogan to resign, it is also unlikely that he will survive the uproar with enough political capital to realize his presidential ambitions next year.

Those who assert that the protests will not bring the liberals to power are right -- they are far too disorganized for that. But that does not mean that the demonstrations have not seriously hurt Erdogan. His handling of the crisis has significantly strengthened the position of his rival. Several polls have already put Gul ahead of Erdogan in a hypothetical contest for the presidency. If anything, then, it is Gul and possibly a refreshed AKP that will emerge from the scuffle in Taksim Square as the ultimate winner.
If that conclusion proves correct, I doubt that this outcome will bring much satisfaction to most of the protesters. But, again, it remains to be seen whether Karaveli's prediction of a moderating and settling-down shift by the AK Party, as it moves into a (post-Erdogan) settling-down phase, turns out to be an insightful prognosis or a bit of wishful thinking. (I don't want to sound unreasonably skeptical, but I'm afraid the political history of the last two centuries is full of premature predictions of moderation that look foolish in retrospect.) Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub