Erdogan’s style

The Gezi Park occupation has been presented as little more than an environmental dispute over an urban green space. But it goes to the heart of the identity of modern Turkey and the character of the Turkish republic. 

Wayne Thaxsted
3 June 2013

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Demotix/Filip Janek. All rights reserved.

Events in Turkey have given us the sort of dramatic images that appeared in coverage of the Arab Spring: demonstrations and protests spreading outwards from one major city to the rest of the country, tear gas and water cannon, spontaneous crowd formation.  But they have also been accompanied by the silent cry of ‘enough is enough’, and if we ask ‘enough of what?’, we may begin to compare Erdoğan not only with ‘other middle eastern despots’ but with some other figures.

For instance, in the face of the calls by some protestors for Erdoğan to resign, journalists and experts have been falling over themselves to remind us that he is a popular, democratically elected leader.  This is true in a sense but also a misleading formulation, for in no democracy is there a separate election for the office of prime minister: Erdoğan was elected as first on the list of AKP candidates. A prime minister may resign even when the government has a secure parliamentary majority.  The obvious comparison here is with Margaret Thatcher, who, after ten years in office, pushed through one more policy – the poll tax - that she thought she could get away with, provoked widespread protests from people who had supported her hitherto and who had never protested about anything before, and was then driven to resignation by her own parliamentary party.  Once she had gone, the conservative party was able to secure another election victory.   Given that the AKP in Turkey owes its success to more than Erdoğan, and given the individual ambitions of politicians everywhere, his resignation and replacement as prime minister by another figure in the AKP are not unimaginable.

The complication in Turkey arises from the fact that Erdoğan would have to present his resignation to the head of state, President Abdullah Gul.  Even here another non-middle eastern comparison suggests itself.  Gul’s relationship with Erdoğan is not unlike that between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the one a colourless but canny operator, the other a dogmatic and inflexible strong man, the two of them making up an unequal double act. Erdoğan covets Gul’s office, but is also seeking to redefine its parameters, ironically enough, in view of the way Erdoğan has lost interest in Turkey’s possible EU membership, by bringing it closer to that of the French president, and with it to the model that was so attractive to the founders of the modern secular Turkish republic.


Prime Minister Erdogan, his wife Emine Erdogan, Turkish president Abdullah Gul and his wife Hayrinusa Gul at the opening of a third Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul. Demotix/Sadik Gulec. All rights reserved.

Parallels with the Kaczynski brothers in Poland also suggest themselves.  One thing they and Thatcher and Putin and Erdoğan share is a claim to speak on behalf of the majority of ordinary people, where to be ordinary is to have a large family – Erdoğan has actively encouraged this - and to stay close to it, to want to better oneself, to have a decent house or flat, and to make sure one’s children are educated while discouraging them from becoming too cultured.

This version of lower-middle class, moderately aspirational respectability, combined with a fear of and hostility towards the arts and their representatives in the liberal intelligentsia, was a trump card for Margaret Thatcher, it brought some success for the Catholic-populist Kaczynski brothers, and Putin’s hair-shirted communist upbringing has made it easy for him see western decadence where others see cultural openness. 

Erdoğan has played this anti-cultural card repeatedly over the last decade.  Whenever recent mega-transport projects in Istanbul have been delayed by the discovery of archaeologically important sites, he has dismissed the artefacts unearthed as mere ‘pots and pans’; one may also wonder whether the attack in 2010 by a metal-bar-wielding gang on the wine-drinking guests at the opening of an Istanbul art gallery, or the recent closing of Istanbul’s iconic Emek cinema, would have been possible without the atmosphere that his policies have fostered.

The difference between Erdoğan and the Kaczynski brothers is that although the Kaczynskis were as philistine as he, their mistake and the reason that their success was short-lived, was to identify themselves almost entirely with those who had lost out in Poland’s economic transformation.  By contrast, Thatcher wanted, and Putin and Erdoğan want to be liked by winners, to which end they not only responded to but helped to create the constituencies that supported them.  Thatcher’s policy of allowing people to buy their council house and making share ownership easier is mirrored in Erdoğan’s sponsorship of a colossal housing development programme which has seen new-build apartments eating their way across Istanbul’s hinterland and disfiguring the landscape, with the difference that whereas Thatcher wanted to set an otherwise unadventurous sort of individualist free, Erdoğan wants people to live in flats built by the office of the prime minister, making them in some ways his tenants. 

But in both cases people can say that they owe their new found sense of prosperity fairy directly to the prime minister.  Putin’s attack on Yeltsin-era oligarchs and restoration of a nation’s pride in itself is another mark of the populist politician’s success.

It is misleading, though, to frame the current dispute solely in terms of secularity and religion, or secularism and Islam.  It boils down to a style of ruling.  Erdoğan can appear at times more democratic than the Kemalists in the opposition: he has started a dialogue with the Kurds that the secular nationalists would never have done; one doesn’t have to be a Marxist to know that the rapid economic growth that his policies have brought about is often a loosener-by-default of entrenched and traditional ways of thinking; and he has sought to emasculate the military. 

The trick he is trying to bring off is to combine this marginalisation of the military, economic success, and cultural retrenchment, and so successful does he think he is that he believes he can have an opinion on anything and everything.  Here again there is a parallel with Margaret Thatcher.  When she expressed her disapproval of a new British Airways logo by draping her handkerchief over the model plane that bore it, the designs were changed; when Erdoğan voiced his dislike of a commissioned statue of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation on a hilltop in the eastern city of Kars, ostensibly on aesthetic grounds, it was officially dismantled.  When he visited Konya in December for the annual Sufi Dervish festival, he spoke to the crowd not of religion or spirituality but of the current healthy state of a bank. 

Gezi Park

There is, though, no better symbol of Erdoğan’s attitude to ruling, nor of his considerable cunning and historical awareness, than the plans to redevelop the Gezi Park.  This has been presented as little more than an environmental dispute over an urban green space, but it goes to the heart of the identity of modern Turkey and the character of the Turkish republic.  The current proposal is for a shopping mall and a mosque, symbols respectively of economic success and religious piety. 

The presence of the latter may well rule out the sale of alcohol along the first hundred yards of Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi, including notably at the French Cultural Institute.   The shopping mall will clearly create jobs and economic exchange.  But the real story is about two other structures, one that exists for now and one that is no more: the first is the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) on the north side of Taksim square, where Istanbul’s citizens used to attend the opera but which has lain empty since 2008.  The local AKP wanted to demolish it and build something ‘more modern’ as they put it, but after protests it was agreed that it be renovated for September 2013, anniversary of the founding of the republic. 

The other is the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks that used to lie on the site of the Gezi Park.  The plan is that the new shopping centre should be built in a style that recalls the Ottoman and Indian features of the barracks, and one may wonder why Erdoğan, so openly hostile to the military, should be in favour of it.  It was at this barracks that soldiers involved in what is known as the countercoup of March 1909 were executed.  The countercoup had been an attempt by army officers, theology students and others to dismantle what was known as the second constitutional era of the Ottoman empire by restoring an autocracy under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, reviving the Caliphate, and re-introducing sharia law.  It was known as the countercoup because it followed the coup of April 1908, carried out by the group of army officers known as the Young Turks.  Their most well-known member was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  Erdoğan is often critcised for seeing himself as a figure  as important to Turkey’s future as Ataturk was to its past and its present; there could be no more fitting monument to Erodgan’s political style than his seeking the demolition of a monument to Ataturk’s interest in culture and the rebuilding of a monument to his ruthlessness.  

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