Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Importance of Being Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot to be smiling about this April Fool’s Day. As if being the political leader of Turkey – a rising developing power, the bridge between Asia and Europe, and an EU hopeful – wasn’t enough, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) just swept the country’s municipal elections. Though he wasn’t on the ballot when Turkish voters went to the polls last month, his party’s victory was a “referendum” on his rule nonetheless. With 44% of the vote, the AKP increased its share of the vote over the 39% it received in the last elections. In the afterglow of victory, Erdogan has responded by promising to make his political enemies “pay the price,” after having called them “terrorists” on the campaign trail.

It’s been a tough year overall for Erdogan’s government. Massive anti-government protests in 2013 gave way to headlines centering on his censorship of social media giants like Twitter and YouTube in the run-up to the election. A Turkish prosecutor’s special report on corruption (likely leaked by the opposition) also revealed an illegal scheme that placed Turkey at the center of money laundering for Iran through intermediaries in China and Dubai; the report also revealed Turkish musings over starting a war with neighboring Syria. While it may not have done much to damage the AKP in the recent elections, the report does raise questions of how Erdogan’s policies will affect relations with the West.

Yet through it all, Erdogan has weathered the storm, and has many observers worried about his direction for Turkey in the coming years. Despite a court ruling that his government unblock Twitter, he has upheld the censorship and gone a step further to block YouTube. The government has also blocked other, smaller social media sites such as blogs. The move to block social media was reportedly in response to a leaked phone call that implicated him and his son in corruption, and that was shared widely via Twitter. Erdogan has plenty of reasons to dislike social media, however, since sites such as Twitter played a central role in facilitating the protests of May 2013. While most internet users can circumvent the ban by using proxy sites, the moves towards greater censorship and restricted rights raise fears that Erdogan is building his own Sultanate in one of the most developed and stable countries in the region.

These fears would not be completely unfounded if Erdogan makes a bid for the presidency in the first popular election for the post in August, or if he decides to run for a fourth term as Prime Minister next year. Although the post of president is largely ceremonial in Turkey, few observers doubt that he would move to vastly expand his executive powers on the basis of the popular vote. Thus his threats to retaliate against his political opposition, which represents a significant portion of the population, are especially menacing. Rather than bringing opposition parties into the fold in a coalition government, Erdogan appears poised to either shut them out of decision-making or actively discriminate against them in the future.

Police fire water cannons at protesters this morning.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s 11-year rule has coincided with a period prosperity for Turkey and has led to his widespread popularity in years past. Yet many Turks have grown weary of his heavy-handed style of governance, his emphasis on religion, and the perceived corruption of his government. They voiced their displeasure today in protests against the election results, which were met with water cannons to disperse the crowds. The protests that started in May 2013, in which approximately 3.5 million Turks out of a population of about 80 million took part, led to 11 deaths and represented the greatest challenge to the AKP under Erdogan’s rule. Despite his recent election victory, Prime Minister Erdogan has plenty to keep him up at night. If he is able to create a meaningful dialogue with the opposition and include them in policymaking – unlikely given his tendency to call them terrorists – he might have a chance of creating a truly representative government for the Turkish people. If not, the importance of being Erdogan will only grow, as the right to free speech and opposition will surely shrink.

1 comment:

  1. Great post - very scary how many Erdogan's there are around the globe...