Leader Transcends Complex Politics of Turkey
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
May 31, 2011
BURSA, Turkey — The cries tumbled from a balcony as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan swaggered down the campaign trail in this picturesque industrial city and former Ottoman capital. “Papa Tayyip!” went the refrain, drawing a wry smile from the man himself.
The words may have lacked the weight of “Father of the Turks,” the title given Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after he established modern Turkey in 1923. But it said much about Mr. Erdogan — arrogant and populist to detractors, charismatic and visionary to supporters — who will soon enter his second decade as leader of a country he has helped transform.
As Turkey heads to an election on June 12 — the size of Mr. Erdogan’s majority the only question — the country faces an Arab Spring, which took it by surprise; ambitions that stretch beyond its means; and growing fears that Mr. Erdogan’s eight years in office have decisively shifted power from the old secular elite and toward his party and the merchant class, migrants and downtrodden that it courts.
But even his critics acknowledge that this country of 79 million is a far different place from the one he inherited, emerging as a decisive power in a region long dominated by the United States.
Though Turkey is still dogged by unemployment, its businesses are booming. In foreign policy, it is acting like the heir of the Ottoman Empire that preceded it, building relationships with Iran and Arab neighbors at the expense of Israel.
And in age-old questions of identities that have haunted the country — Kurdish and Turkish, secular and religious — the party has governed at a time when those divisions seem less pronounced and possibly less relevant to a modernizing country.
The electoral power in Turkey is Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AK, as it has been since it won its first election in 2002. But the undisputed force in the country is Mr. Erdogan (pronounced ERR-doh-ahn), a 57-year-old former mayor of Istanbul, semiprofessional soccer player and favorite son of Kacimpasha, a neighborhood known for its tough and outspoken men (and women, too, some say).
While polls suggest that his party wins its votes through a campaign message that casts its leaders as modernizers, populists and devout custodians of the poor, Mr. Erdogan is far bigger than the party.
A recent survey found that half of its votes came by way of the prime minister himself, a popular mandate his party has used to push through economic reform and challenge the power of the old elite through constitutional amendments, court cases and, some say, intimidation.
“He’s a phenomenon, really,” said Yilmaz Esmer, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University.
At a rally this month in Koaceli, another industrial town, Mr. Erdogan strode into a stadium packed with tens of thousands of supporters with the swagger of a brawler, legs slightly apart and stooped shoulders swaying. A crowd that had waited hours grew ecstatic. Mr. Erdogan took the stage in a suit with no tie, his hard stare hidden behind sunglasses.
“We didn’t come to rule!” he declared to adulation. “We came to serve you!”
Mr. Erdogan compares well with any orator in the region, and has an innate sense of his audience. He is part Friday preacher, part neighborhood rabble-rouser, styling himself as an underdog even as he holds unquestioned power.
He is deeply pious, but his speech was short on religious fare. The message was instead Mr. Erdogan’s trademark synthesis of populism, nationalism and moralism, wrapped in a litany of schools built, roads paved, sewers rehabilitated and hospitals refurbished. “We did all of this, and we’ll do better now,” he promised. As with the party’s appeal, his crowd was a cross section of Turkey, with a large group of the hard faces of the disenfranchised in the heartland of Anatolia that Mr. Erdogan courts.
“I’ve liked him ever since he was mayor of Istanbul,” said Mahmune Uyan, a 46-year-old homemaker who brought her three sons to the rally and draped herself in an orange party flag. “Since then, he was a brother in this world and the world to come.”
Mr. Erdogan’s style of populism dates from the 1950s in Turkey. He is said to have sold lemonade and sesame buns as a youth in Kacimpasha, and the residents there revere him as a favorite son. At the Saray Cafe, festooned with Mr. Erdogan’s portraits, Yasar Kirici, the owner, insisted that the prime minister knew every resident by name.
Mr. Kirici grew angry over a look of disbelief at the claim. “Without a doubt!” he shouted, jabbing his finger into his chest.
On the wall was a portrait of Mr. Erdogan side by side with Mr. Ataturk. Another showed him at a neighborhood circumcision ceremony. A large portrait captured him berating President Shimon Peres of Israel at a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in 2009.
There is a longstanding debate over whether Turkey has tilted east after decades of embracing the West as a NATO member and almost reflexive ally of the United States. It still nominally embraces the goal of joining the European Union, carrying out reforms mandated by the entry process that have made Turkey a far more liberal place.
But sensing a decline of American power in the region, Turkish officials have become sharply more assertive in the Middle East, priding themselves on keeping open channels to virtually every party.
The policy falls under the rubric of “zero problems” with its neighbors, though successes have been few. Problems remain with Armenia, and Turkey was unable to resolve the conflict in Cyprus, still divided by Greek and Turkish zones. Once serving as a mediator between Syria and Israel, its relationship with the latter collapsed after Israeli troops killed nine people onboard a Turkish flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza.
“The problem lies with Israel,” Mr. Erdogan said bluntly in an interview.
Its own officials admit that the Foreign Ministry remains too small for its ambitions as a regional power. At least $15 billion in investments were lost in the civil war in Libya. And Syria — viewed as Turkey’s fulcrum for integrating the region’s economy — faces a revolt that has tested Mr. Erdogan’s friendship with President Bashar al-Assad. While some see Egypt as a newfound ally of Turkey, others view it as an emerging rival in a region where Mr. Erdogan remains one of the most popular figures.
The optimism derives from Mr. Erdogan’s greatest legacy — an economy that has more than tripled since 2002 and whose exports have gone to $114 billion a year from $36 billion. Europe remains its pre-eminent market, but its businessmen have plied Ottoman trade routes with a sense of unabashed optimism at untapped markets. Many hail from Anatolia, sharing the party’s ideology of social conservatism and economic liberalism, with a hint of nostalgia for the old empire.
They like to recite Mr. Erdogan’s contention that Turkey will be Europe’s second biggest economy after Germany by 2050. The confidence Mr. Erdogan sometimes inspires is so pronounced it borders on jingoism.
“We don’t want to be a second- or third-rate people,” said Hakan Cinkilic, the foreign trade manager of Sun Pet, a plastics factory in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, whose exports have more than doubled in three years. “We should be first.”
The sense of ebullience seems to have washed across the longstanding divides in the country. They, of course, still exist. Many intellectuals fear that a resounding victory next month will allow Mr. Erdogan’s party to rewrite the Constitution, with little input from the opposition, perhaps even creating a presidential system, which Mr. Erdogan has suggested.
Mr. Erdogan’s own authoritarian streak — his sensitivity to caricatures, disdain of criticism and methodical attempts to dismantle the old-guard secular elite in the military and courts — has lost the party some of the liberal support that it had early on.
One professor called Mr. Erdogan arrogant, then pleaded for the quote not to be published, fearing he might lose his job. But even he acknowledged that the longstanding fears that Mr. Erdogan would impose his piety on the country had not come to pass.
The main opposition party has tried to extract itself from debate over religious versus secular emphasis, judging it a losing stand in a conservative country. Where once Mr. Ataturk was the rallying cry for secular Turkey, the opposition’s leader hardly mentions him by name.
Recent polling has suggested that voters themselves are less wed to the old definitions of secular and religious in a country where Mr. Ataturk once considered putting pews in mosques and introducing classical Western music at services.
In a survey last year by Iksara, a local firm, voters between the ages of 18 and 25 were asked to identify their ideological stands. More than a third of Mr. Erdogan’s supporters offered Kemalist, the ideology of Mr. Ataturk, as one of their identities.
“People are tired of old identities, this nationalist divide, this religious divide,” said Selcuk Sirin, a professor at New York University who helped with the polling.
“There’s a generational issue here,” he added.