Recep Tayyip Erdogan: the Mandela test

Hakan Altinay
17 March 2009

It comes as a surprise when a country's prime minister calls on female citizens to give birth to at least three children. It is even more so when he repeatedly asks for a boycott of all newspapers and TV channels owned by the country's biggest media group. It might be thought that a prime minister's entitlements do not include passing judgment on the choice of a newspaper or the number of children a family can have.

Hakan Altinay is the executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Istanbul.

Also by Hakan Altinay in openDemocracy:

"Why the European Union strengthens Turkish secularism" (3 September 2008) - with Kalypso Nicolaïdis

The prime minister of Turkey, however, seems not to agree. Here, Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds normal what others find surprising. If only opinions were involved, this would be mere curiosity. But when the media group (Dogan) vilified by Erdogan is then fined more than €400 million ($520) for tax penalties, it becomes a matter of real concern. And this is what we have in Turkey, today.

Erdogan has been compared to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin; he has also been labelled an "Islamofascist". He is not Putin and certainly is not an Islamofascist. Indeed the political and economic reforms he implemented in 2003-04 - the first two years after his Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi  (Justice & Development Party / AKP) was elected to power in 2002 - were far-reaching and impressive. More recently, he made the important symbolic gesture of speaking Kurdish at the inauguration of the Kurdish-language state TV channel. He is a reformer, albeit with a mixed record.

But Erdogan - who is now campaigning hard for a renewed mandate in the nationwide parliamentary poll on 29 March 2009 - does have an authoritarian streak. This creates a particular problem and worry when the prime minister's instinct is shared across other institutions of Turkish society.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Turkey's politics:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006) Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's ‘Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)

, "Turkey's risk, Europe's role" (2 April 2008) - a statement from a group of European intellectuals

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)

Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008)

Max Farrar, "Anatolian Muslimhood: humanising capitalism?" (29 October 2008)

Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's military-political contest" (3 November 2008)

Turkey's armed forces, for example, threatened to intervene in the process of electing a new president. The constitutional court made a mockery of the constitution it is charged with protecting by establishing quorum requirements (where none had ever existed or been needed) and by annulling constitutional amendments (when they had no right to do so). When these scandalous moves occurred, too many secularist Turkish citizens opposed to the prime minister looked the other way and failed to question them. If they had spoken out more forcefully, they would have more moral authority today. When defenders or members of the establishment violate rules and norms so blatantly, or seek to undermine constitutional order, previously marginalised newcomers - such as Erdogan and his AKP - can all too easily follow suit. On both sides, lack of principle and accountability damages Turkey.

Unless this cycle is broken, Turkey will be condemned to perpetual infighting. To avoid that spectre, all groups in Turkey - across political divides - must do better than they have so far in standing up for democratic values and civic freedoms. Secularists need to distance themselves from authoritarian options: they have to be better democrats. In turn, Erdogan and the AKP have to be better liberals.

The responsibility is shared, but the prime minister's power and influence as the elected leader of the country's government means that his role is fundamental. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not told Turkish people clearly and frequently enough what he thinks are the rights of the people who are least like him - and what he is ready to do in defence of those rights. Even if some of the secularists' tactics are distasteful, many of their concerns are real and legitimate.

Turkey's polarisation has in this pre-election period reached a critical point. It is not enough to say that Erdogan's excesses are no worse than his predecessors', or that he and the groups he represents had themselves been pushed around for too long. After more than six years in office he now represents the establishment, and he needs to be much more magnanimous to his critics and political adversaries. In particular, he needs to make clear to suspicious secularists that he will not abuse his power to marginalise and prosecute them.

The way he has treated the Dogan media group (and the group has done nothing to justify the prime minister's vilification) is symptomatic of the problem. If Erdogan continues to view his political role as the equivalent of a fighter in a street-brawl, he may claim victory in the end, but only by inflicting further - and this time irreparable - scars on the body and even the soul of Turkish society. This self-defeating result would be everyone's loss.

If, on the other hand, he could muster the courage to reach out to groups who now view him with utter suspicion, he would begin to heal the country's dangerous political divisions. It is a big challenge, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to acquire a bit of Nelson Mandela's touch. Turkey's democratic space and the quality of its public debate are in trouble. The prime minister is no dictator. But both Turks and the rest of the world need him to be more.

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