June 20, 2012
Over the past decade, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has carefully crushed opposition and consolidated power, creating a "cult of personality" around himself to the extent that one wonders if anyone else could effectively govern the country. With Turkey now likely to switch to a presidential system of government, it appears no one has to wonder any more.
Erdogan – a former football player-turned-mayor of Istanbul-turned-political prisoner-turned-prime minister – appears prepared to reinvent himself again, this time as president. His preparation for the position was strengthened on June 15 when Turkey's constitutional court rejected an attempt by the country's largely powerless opposition to block current President Abdullah Gul, a member of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), from extending his term until 2014.
Had the opposition been successful, Erdogan would have likely been forced to assume the currently ceremonial position of president before the country's constitution is rewritten, a process that will take approximately 18 months, at least temporarily weakening his powerful hand. Now, with Gul's position as president secured until 2014, Erdogan can oversee a rewriting of Turkey's constitution and the transition to a presidential system that he hopes to head following an election.
Turkey's current constitution was drafted by the country's once all-powerful military following a 1980 coup. Much of Turkish society – and many of the country's western allies – agree it needs amending. The switch should be straightforward. And having seen the AKP win a nearly 50% mandate in parliamentary elections in 2011, Erdogan's victory in a presidential poll is virtually assured. No one is as popular or effective a leader than he. Only he has succeeded in taming the power of the military, once seen as the chief impediment to democracy in Turkey. Only he manages to loom over the murky Gulen movement, a powerful international network founded in Turkey that some estimate to have thousands of followers in government and business. Only he manages to be both a controversial figure and also the one that acts as a bridge between religious conservatives, nationalists, and even some pragmatic liberals.
Why not let him stay in power to guide Turkey through the transition to a new constitution and rise to become an influential player on the global stage? After all, Turkey is a haven of calm squeezed between the disaster zone that's the euro and perpetual violence of the Middle East. Last year, the country’s economy grew by 8.5%. This year, the government expects about 4% growth.
Rumours have it that Erdogan wants to remain in power until 2023, the centennial anniversary of the Turkish Republic. So how concerned should we be at Erdogan's apparent attempt to remain at the apex of Turkish power for the next decade?
Who is Erdogan?
For all that he can take credit for already, Erdogan's moment could still be on the horizon. Over the past few months, his government has ushered in a rush of legislative changes and jailed thousands of citizens who opposed his policies, including many students and critical members of the media. Especially as his apparent aim for the presidency became clearer, Erdogan has increasingly been compared to Russia’s long-time leader Vladimir Putin. A strongman admired by villagers and a certain segment of the wealthy classes, is how the comparison goes. Yet Turkey’s population is younger than Russia’s (the median age in Turkey is 26, while Russia’s is 38). The comparison only goes so far.
To full understand Erdogan, one should look at Turkish history rather than at other contemporary leaders. Indeed, one has to look to the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The very name brings a reverent hush to any political discourse. Ataturk, whose photo still graces the wall of many homes in Turkey, was a strongman who introduced democracy to Turkey, while at the same time ruling supreme and tolerating little dissent. The legacy that he left to Turkey was Kemalism, which a variety of Turkish analysts describe as "modernisation by force." The state would at times intervene to decide what was best for the country.
The main problem with Kemalism is that it did not accurately represent Turkey’s population. Islam is instilled deep within Turks and the strict secularism that Kemalism demanded was not fully welcomed. Entire segments of society were marginalised. Just as Ataturk led a revolution that took Turkey away from domination by foreign powers and the corrupt declining structure that was the Sultanate, using as much force as necessary, Erdogan has also led a revolution in Turkey, but one that many argue is more representative of society. Just as Ataturk put Turkey on the path to modernisation, Erdogan is forcing to the country to acknowledge its identity.
Both Erdogan and Ataturk had visions that they have implemented by varying degrees of force and were the only individuals that could touch a large enough segment of Turkey’s population to lead the way through trying times.
What Erdogan needs to realise now is that his revolution has been largely won. He could end the campaign and make amends with his enemies. If he does not, instead of going down in history as a reformer, his rule could end up being considered authoritarian. Already, prisoners in overcrowded jails in southeastern Turkey are rioting, with at least 13 dying in a fire on June 18. Police used pepper spray to disperse "families and protesters" who tried to reach the prison, according to the state-run Anatolian New Agency.
If he does intend to assume the presidency in the coming years, the combative Erdogan will have to act fast to move towards reconciliation rather than revolution. If he does not, the story of a new revolution may well start, "… it began in the prisons…"