Erdogan’s Crisis: How Protests Undermined Turkish Leader’s Legacy

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Monique Jaques / Corbis

A rally in support of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party in Istanbul's Gezi Park on June 16th

In 2011, as regional leaders were toppled from power, one after the other, Turkey’s strident Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked like he had it all: a thriving economy (the world’s fastest-growing after China’s), increased visibility on the world stage and popular support at home (he was elected for a third term with almost half of votes cast). A tough-talking survivor of several political bans on earlier incarnations of his Islamist party, a brief prison term and alleged attempts by the military to oust him from power, Erdogan played big and seemingly always won.

Erdogan’s third term was to have cemented his legacy. “Mubarak, we are human beings,” he told the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a televised speech shortly after the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square began. “We are not immortal. We will die one day, and we will be questioned for the things that we left behind. The important thing is to leave behind sweet memories.” But Erdogan appeared to forget his own advice; he began to do things that guaranteed he would leave behind some less-than-sweet memories. He proposed legislative limits to birth control, singled out in speeches journalists critical of his government, called on prosecutors to censor a steamy TV show about the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman, pushed through a law limiting alcohol sales and commissioned a grand mosque to be built on one of Istanbul’s few remaining open hilltops.

(MORE: After a Violent Weekend Crackdown, Turkey Braces for More Chaos)

Those steps may have been his undoing and, as Turkey reels from a violent police crackdown on mass protests that began over demands to save a central Istanbul park from demolition, Erdogan’s legacy now looks distinctly threatened. Tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters in 60 cities took to the streets in the past two weeks — the biggest challenge yet to his decadelong rule. Riot police wielding tear gas and water cannons turned downtown Istanbul and Ankara into battlefields. Four people died and thousands were wounded. At least 300 people have since been detained in police sweeps; they are being questioned about their roles in the protests.

The man bold enough to take on Turkey’s all-powerful generals — and rein them in — found his challengers in a group led by 20-somethings with no previous political engagement, armed only with Twitter and a sense that they were increasingly seen by Erdogan’s government as somehow irrelevant. Incensed by escalating police brutality and Erdogan’s high-handed manner, the largely middle class youths devised gas masks and homemade anti-tear-gas remedies, took to the streets and somehow managed to seize Istanbul’s central Taksim Square from police. Declaring it a “free zone,” they set about establishing free food stalls, a stage, a library and outdoor screenings in contested Gezi Park. Social-media use exploded. Kurds, feminists, nationalists, gay activists and union organizers joined in.

For the first time, Erdogan’s usual combativeness — a trait uncannily similar to the military commanders he so fought against — did not work. He dismissed the protesters as vandals and looters — and that instantly backfired. The protesters took the Turkish word for looter, capulcu, invented a verb (chapulling) and proudly coined their movement: Chapullers. Erdogan then blamed the unrest on an international conspiracy to undermine Turkey, a mysterious “interest-rate lobby.” They made posters that read: “It’s O.K., Tayyip, someday you too will be loved.” He sent in the police to empty the park. They adapted their protest so that at 8 p.m. every day thousands of people nationwide flock to the nearest city square and simply stand still, silently. The Interior Minister eventually declared that standing still did not, technically, constitute an offense warranting detention.

(MORE: An Uneasy Calm in Istanbul as Protests Continue at Taksim Square)

“This was a first for the Prime Minister,” says Sedat Ergin, senior columnist for the mainstream Hurriyet daily. “As Prime Minister, he had never really suffered a loss and, from his perspective, had won every confrontation he ever faced.”

Life in Istanbul’s Taksim Square is slowly returning to normal. Municipal crews are busy whitewashing over the graffiti. Hotels that served as first-aid shelters for people fleeing tear gas have cleaned up and hope to return to business as usual. (Tourism was hard hit.)

But the protests’ ripple effects have only just begun. In major Turkish cities, hundreds of people congregate in neighborhood parks every evening for “people’s forums.” Each person who wants to speak is given two minutes to lay out his or her ideas for what should happen next. Chaotic, passionate and often frustrating, as a democratic practice it is a first for Turks. “The spirit of Gezi will live on,” says Soli Ozel, international-relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

There is no political-opposition figure strong enough to challenge Erdogan, but the unrest has likely scuppered his plans to change the constitution and create an empowered presidential role (presently largely ceremonial) that he could then run for. His Justice and Development Party’s current rules prevent him from running for a fourth term, though that could be changed. If Erdogan takes that tack he could call early elections as soon as next spring, playing to fears that without a strongman in charge, Turkey could lose the economic gains of the past decade. In May, Turkey paid in its last loan installment to the International Monetary Fund, ending a 52-year debt relationship.

Indeed, post-Gezi, he sounds like he is campaigning. Speaking to a rally of 250,000 supporters in Istanbul on June 16, he accused protesters of consorting with terrorists, “drinking in mosques” and threatening “our sisters in headscarves.” He is a powerful orator who draws on religious themes; that same us-vs.-them rhetoric has served him well before. At the Istanbul rally, crowds chanted, “Turkey is not just Taksim Square.” Erdogan is more than just popular — to devout supporters he is seen as something of a savior, championing conservative Islam against what they saw as the demeaning restrictions of a secular state. (Female university students were previously not allowed to wear the headscarf, for example.)

And yet Erdogan is no longer an underdog. In 10 years he has become the sort of figure of authority he once sought to challenge. Whether he now uses his still very considerable power to heal, or to further divide, will become the defining test of his leadership.

MORE: Viewpoint: The Hubris of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan

27 comments
tolgas44
tolgas44

@TIME next year this time you will LICK what you just spat, if u think this is going to work what u done u ll be sorry, nobody can stop him.

thracean
thracean

Well, apparently Erdogan's days are numbered. Initial successes in economy and politics have led him to be different personality, arrogant, conceited. He has zero tolerance towards those who criticize himself. 

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

Why leaders in Asia and Africa find it so hard to step down, is hard to explain. Erdogan began with a bang and managed to project Turkey as a World leader. The first trip Obama made in 2009 was to Turkey. The US suddenly found a capable ally in the Middle East, who was Islamic but also secular. The change in Erdogan started when he started to spend his entire time becoming a hero in the Middle East and genuinely believed that he could restore the Ottoman empire. But, the Erdogan of today is disliked in much of the Middle East, he has alienated the US and Israel, supported thughs in Syria, jailed journalists and dissenters and found it fit to tear gas and attack his own people involved in peaceful protest. All this change is because, staying in power has become an obsession and this he can do by courting poorer Islamists, who want to distance themselves from the Attaturk face of Turkey. In his new Avatar, Erdogan is yearning for a legacy and hence his judgment is affected. The Turks are smart people and will move the country back to the center

aJay
aJay

For people who blame on Turkish Police. Below video is from US. Please see what happens if you resist to police in most democratic country in the world. On the other hand, demonstrators at Turkey, had burned, damaged public property and blocked the streets.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIQyvWEDVN4

PaoloBersani
PaoloBersani

@Corriereit @TIME Vergognosa opposizione di Germania ed Olanda a stop a trattative per l'ingresso in UE della Turchia. Coi soldi di mezzo...

1_Vital
1_Vital

@TIME @TIMEWorld whatever world think abt Erdugan but at the end he is just right and know what is good for Turkish pplz and Islam.

goldfish
goldfish

4 innocent people is killed, so many people are lost their eyes and many of them have broken legs, arms and kind of things. Erdoğan's police did this. Because they were shouting for their freedom. What kind of journalist you are?! You must come and see İstanbul's situation before you write! 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeQFl0i2QAg

 

msshuaibu
msshuaibu

@TIME @TIMEWorld The evil that men do lives after them no more. Erdogan can now appreciate the ugliness of his unprincipled stand with Syria

firmsoil
firmsoil

Erdogan is a puppet smoke-screen for religious fundamentalists who are in control and are pushing women back to the barbaric medieval age.

GoncaAvcioglu
GoncaAvcioglu

Yes votes should determine who is next. People living beyond Turkish borders should be allowed too especially those who lived half of their life there. Neither the police nor the protesters have right to use force. Seems some violent protesters hoped to blend in with the rest, they have to be found and prosecuted and should serve community service.

FairWitness1
FairWitness1

@TIME @TIMEWorld QUR~AN SCIENCE TEXT BOOK INCLUDES ERDOGAN IN DEDICATION . RE MEETS WITH CHILE EARTHQUAKE ENGINEERS RE: ISTANBUL ACCESS

fuertecorazon
fuertecorazon

@TIME @TIMEWorld Needs to b voted out of office to prove Turkey is still a democracy and restore and preserve their secular roots

thracean
thracean

@goldfish Most of the damages to the shops, cars and houses were done by the police forces, as we have witnessed. But the damage to the humanity is just awful and incredible. 

fbperlsmyfishaddict
fbperlsmyfishaddict

@TIME @TIMEWorld 

Go live in a Gulf State if you want Islam so bad. Government and Religion should never be mixed!! Following another man made, hypocritical religion and wanting it as rule of law is sheer IDIOCY!!