Erdogan’s Paradox: Turkish Leader Struggles Between Authoritarianism and Democracy

As Turkey's dominant Premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done much to deepen the country's long-troubled institutions of democracy. But he may be remembered instead for his authoritarian streak

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Jodi Hilton / Nurphoto / Sipa USA

A poster of Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hung from barbed wire near the site where hundreds of thousands of people attended a massive rally on June 16, 2013 in Istanbul.

Turkey — the bridge between East and West. That’s how the cliché goes, a saying that endures because it’s physically true: “Welcome to Europe” reads the sign on one side of a bridge over the Bosporus, the strait that divides Istanbul. “Welcome to Asia” is the sign on the other. But the passage also evokes transitions of other, less tangible sorts, one of which is playing out in the persistent civic unrest that’s knocked the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan so badly off stride. Turkey’s own transition, to a fully fledged democracy, is not yet complete. As street protests enter a fourth week in Turkey’s major cities, Erdogan finds himself tugged alternately by the imperfect democracy that brought him to power and the authoritarian legacy that lingers in Turkey’s body politic.

“All the world was authoritarian until the middle of the 19th century or so,” notes Rami G. Khouri, head of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “Democracy is a very young tradition in even countries like France.” It’s even younger in Turkey, which until 1924 wasn’t even a country.

(MORE: Erdogan’s Crisis: How Protests Undermined Turkish Leader’s Legacy)

Before that, it was just Asia Minor, seat of the Ottoman Empire that ruled much of the Muslim world for four centuries. That epic run of autocracy carried over into the early days of the modern republic that the Turkish military hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built on the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, almost as an act of will. Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, created a one-party state that Western nations would later call the model for a Muslim democracy, not least because Ataturk so admired the West. But the immense authority the new Turkey vested in devlet (the state) was more in line with traditions still thriving in the lands east and south of the Anatolian peninsula. Political scientists still debate why, but the Middle East and northern Africa would be the last section of the globe to turn toward democracy. And Turkey has never gotten all the way there itself.

The paradox is that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, nudged the country closer than anyone. The party’s first victory in 2002 was a populist triumph that hoisted Turkish politics from the sterile province of the elites and empowered the heartland’s devout Muslims, the population Ataturk’s successors feared could not reconcile loyalty to both nation and faith. Reinforced by successive, ever larger victories at the ballot box, Erdogan then defanged the Turkish military, which had toppled four elected governments in as many decades. Along the way, a new cult of personality formed around the Premier.

“He’s a second Ataturk,” a furniture-store owner named Omer told me in 2011, referring to Erdogan. And in some ways he is. Both men held themselves out as role models — Ataturk in his tux and tails as an exemplar of modernity, Erdogan as a plainspoken nationalist who answers to God as well as country. Neither shied from giving advice: in outlawing the fez in 1925, Ataturk informed Turks that being civilized “means boots and shoes, trousers, shirt and tie, jacket and vest. And to complete these, a cover with a brim on our heads. I want to make this clear. This head covering is called a hat.” Also by decree, Ataturk introduced the Roman alphabet and last names.

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

Profound powers remain available to a Turkish Prime Minister, including a press law that accelerated Erdogan’s transition from populist to authoritarian: Turkey has more journalists in detention than has either Iran or China. Many of the detained journalists are accused of colluding with the generals charged with plotting another coup. The major media outlets in Turkey are thoroughly cowed, managers isolating reporters who irk Erdogan.

Notoriously thin-skinned, Erdogan also makes ample use of the courts, having sued hundreds of people since coming to office, starting with a political cartoonist who drew him as a cat.

“I see him as a kind of Nixonian figure,” Khouri says. “Nixon was a guy who twice was elected democratically, then with J. Edgar Hoover and others he just tried to hog power. I think what Turkey is going through is just one of the weaknesses of democratic systems. What you see with [Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki in Iraq: you can be elected democratically and try to move undemocratically to maintain your incumbency.”

(MORE: Women on the Front Lines of Turkey Protests)

For McGill University professor Rex Brynen, who specializes in democratization in the Middle East, the better parallel is Margaret Thatcher, the transformative British Premier who reveled in polarizing the population, so much so that her funeral drew protesters. “Erdogan is the Margaret Thatcher of the AKP,” says Brynen. And like Thatcher, who left office when the Conservative Party she led decided she endangered its future, Erdogan must answer to a party.

That might be the key fact to bear in mind, as the confrontations between Erdogan and his critics play out on the streets of Turkish cities. Messy as they look, the mass public demonstrations amount to direct citizen action aimed at finally rounding out Turkey’s unfinished democracy, the most consistent element of which has always been … elections. Early evidence indicated Erdogan’s colleagues in the AKP had this future public accounting well in mind. When Erdogan left the country for a week after the first street clashes, other senior AKP leaders were far more politic then their leader, opening doors to dialogue that Erdogan later slammed shut. What’s impossible to know is how much Erdogan’s belligerence flows from his personality, and how much from some calculation that many Turks will respond to a strong leader. Although a recent survey showed Erdogan’s approval rating dropping by 10 points since April, it was still above 50%.

As the fight over public space grinds on, Brynen says, “The question is how much is Erdogan, and how much is the transition from Turkey’s authoritarian legacy to democracy. The legacy issue is seen through the prism of this individual. He’s clearly not Nelson Mandela.”

Nor does he claim to be. One of the recent controversies drawing people into the street was Erdogan’s choice for the name of a new span over the Bosporus, one of several audacious building projects sizing up as his physical legacy. Selim the First came to power by killing his brothers and forcing his father to abdicate. He is remembered both for expanding the Ottoman Empire to its maximum reach and for ordering the slaughter of 40,000 Alevis, a religious minority that today accounts for about 15% of Turkey’s population. The sultan’s nickname, Yavuz, is usually translated as “the Grim.” But language is as complex as culture, and Turks also understand the word as steadfast.

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