Although he was once hailed in the West as a moderate, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has never been a political leader to shy away from conflict. His political career has in many ways been defined by his ability to use attacks by powerful opponents (both real and imagined) to his advantage. In 1999, as Mayor of Istanbul, he made his name by publicly reciting a populist Islamic poem that included the lines “the mosques are our barracks”. This broke Turkey’s strict secular laws and earned him a conviction for inciting religious hatred. But a sentence of ten months in jail and a ban from political office didn’t hold back his political career. In 2002 the new Justice and Development Party won Turkey’s first outright majority for a generation and passed a law allowing him to take office as Prime Minister.
The narrative of political outsider helped to unite various other strands of popular support
Success in the face of state sponsored adversity became his political mantra. Erdogan used it to build popularity that went beyond his core supporters of religious conservatives who had long felt excluded by a secular state. The narrative of political outsider helped to unite various other strands of popular support in a country whose political system has long been seen as elitist and authoritarian. Using his humble background and common sense language he portrayed himself as someone who was finally sticking up for the “ordinary” Turkish citizen.
Helping remove the military from Turkish politics won him plaudits amongst middle class liberals, which he bolstered by backing Turkey’s membership of the European Union. Most importantly, this anti-state narrative helped legitimize a neo-liberal economic agenda based on rolling back the state in favor of privatization and foreign capital. Erdogan’s majority government provided the political stability to successfully enact these reforms. The subsequent economic growth in construction and exports cemented his position with important sections of society.
This summer’s protests (centered around Gezi Park but with strong reach across the country) were a reaction to the authoritarian nature of these neo-liberal reforms. In response Erdogan played the cards that had won him previous support. The protests were demonized as a combination of old elites trying to reassert themselves and an international conspiracy. He called for ordinary people to rise up against these undemocratic forces, claiming he could bring out a million supporters for every hundred thousand protesters. This shocked the somewhat naive international community and lost him support amongst liberals. However it helped secure a siege mentality around his core supporters by playing on old fears. A serious political challenge failed to emerge and for the time being Erdogan was able to see out the crisis.
While his combative style of may have been crucial to his decade of success, it may now cause Erdogan’s downfall. The summer protests marked a turning point in the relationship between Erdogan and Fethullah Gullen - a key ally in the AKP’s rise to power. Gulen’s supporters in the police and judiciary provided a key counter balance against the military’s influence in the state apparatuses. However, animosity had been growing between the two camps since 2012. It seemed the relationship had been patched up, until this summer when Gulen criticized Erdogan’s aggressive handling of the events. Although he did not go as far as supporting the protest, he argued that they should have been dealt with much more subtly.
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RELATED OPINION Turkey at a crossroads – the Gulen-Erdogan conflict
Gulen preaches a particularly western orientated and free market brand of Islam, particularly popular amongst social groups like the owners of Turkey’s small and medium sized enterprises. His supporters had greatly benefited from the last decade of political stability and had watched the fallout from the protests with increasing concern. They became even more alarmed as Erdogan’s increasingly Islamic rhetoric as part of his post-Gezi fightback. Not only did this not bode well for internal harmony, it increasingly damaged what they saw as Turkey’s crucial relationships with America and the European Union.
Under these tensions their alliance has deteriorated into open conflict and the current political crisis. Many believe that this will be a political storm Erdogan will be unable to weather. The Gulen movement has strong positions even within his own party and several AKP deputies have already resigned in protest. It is now almost impossible for the present political bloc to continue in its current form and it has already begun to disintegrate.
But it is too soon to write of a politician who thrives on confrontation. Erdogan’s response has been to fight fire with fire. He denounced the corruption allegations as conspiracies (numerous enough to have their own buzzfeed list), removed up to 500 police involved in the case and reshuffled his cabinet in favor of staunch loyalists. This strategy has again proved effective in rallying his core supporters, some of whom have vowed to be with him “to the death“. More importantly the arrests have stopped and it appears as if the Gulen movement may be on the back foot. Erdogan is pressing home this advantage and the government has now vowed to take on opponents in the judiciary. Surprisingly, after a massive economic fallout which saw the Lira plummet against the dollar, the Turkish stock-market has begun to show signs of picking up.
A series of anti-corruption protests have emerged
Erdogan could well emerge on the other side as a leader of a smaller and more concentrated political group - an AKP dominated by Islamic conservatives – much like the Welfare Party (of which he was member in the 1990′s). This time he will be strengthened by the fact that he will be operating in a political system formed by a decade of his own reforms. For example, it is unlikely that the once strong secular state would be able to disband a reconfigured AKP for being too Islamist like the Constitutional Court did the Welfare Party in 1998.
The initial reaction of the AKP’s opponents was to sit tight and watch Erdogan and Gulen damage each other, but now there is a growing realization that may not be enough. Against this complacency, a series of anti-corruption protests have emerged. If they manage to galvanize the support of last summer they could finally bring down the government. However, for the time being Edrogan is down, but he certainly isn’t out.