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.

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