The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
How Erdogan Blew It
Published on June 12, 2013

Something very curious is happening in Turkey.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appear to have been rattled by the Istanbul demonstrations that started on May 31. With the world’s attention on Gezi Park in Taksim, they seem to be at a loss as to how to respond. Erdogan, back from his trip to North Africa, has been blaming banks, “the interest lobby”, as his supporters on the street, in the media and on Twitter have sought to accuse foreigners of all kinds, the foreign media and, of course, last but least, the traditional bête noire, those who have always tried to block Turkey’s advancement: read, the West. Just yesterday he made things worse by unleashing the police once again after promising to meet with demonstrators. Never have the AKP and Erdogan been this off balance.

And this is what is so bizarre.

To date, the AKP and Erdogan exuded an image of complete self-confidence that has certainly been unseen in Turkey but perhaps in many other countries as well. He has had tougher fights before, including a 2007 showdown with the hitherto almighty military. They had reasons for this swagger: The economy had been doing extremely well, Turkey’s international stature had grown, and the AKP had danced from election victory to election victory, each time winning with a larger share of the vote.

What is more, Turkey had become a one-party, one-man system, not unlike that of the Atatürk years, but with one difference: The AKP’s ascension to power was earned through the ballot box. And Erdogan is the one man who dominates the agenda and future course of the country. No one has been or is likely to be in a position to challenge Erdogan for the foreseeable future.

If no one could challenge Erdogan, it is because the opposition is totally hapless. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has no notion of what contesting elections is all about: organizing, retail politics and interacting with voters. There probably were better political parties in the Neolithic Age.

Add to this Erdogan latest bold move, the initiation of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, to end decades of civil strife and conflict that has taken the lives of countless civilians, soldiers and guerillas. By all indications, this is not only a bold move but one that has garnered a great deal of public support.

Then came the Gezi Park demonstrations. Ostensibly a reaction to the construction of a shopping center and removal of trees from one of the few remaining green areas of downtown Istanbul. Then the police, as often the Turkish police do, overreacted, and overnight the Gezi protests metamorphosed into a nationwide movement. Unlike President Abdullah Gül (who comes from the AKP) and Erdogan’s Deputy Prime Minister, who sought to mollify the demonstrators’ bruised feelings, Erdogan showed no signs of contrition. He and his supporters unleashed volley after volley of accusations against the demonstrators.

The smear campaign includes not just the accusation that Erdogan’s opponents are collaborating with foreigners but also that they are seeking nothing less than a coup d’état—that they in effect want the military to return.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the people demonstrating in Taksim and elsewhere would be the first to lay down their bodies to stop tanks from rolling. Their protest is precisely about fighting limits on freedom—freedom of speech, association and lifestyle.

So why are Erdogan and the AKP so threatened that they chose to confront rather than negotiate? Why are they so rattled that they interpret the demonstrations as an attack on the regime and on their own survival? This comes at a time when the AKP and Erdogan were sitting at the pinnacle of their success.

To be honest, it is difficult to understand or rationalize the reaction. One possible explanation is that Erdogan has taken this personally, as he has many slights in the past. He is unaccustomed to being contradicted; no one in his extended entourage has the nerve to challenge him.

A more likely explanation, however, can be that the worldwide media’s focus on the events has embarrassed him. They have undermined the confident image he had been projecting all along. Coming on the heels of his North Africa tour, where the Turkish model is (was) perceived as great, the events have cast a long and unpleasant shadow over his visit. Besides, his visit was to North Africa, where Arab Spring demonstrators overthrew dictators; the events in Turkey in no way constitute an anti-regime movement, and this is no Turkish Spring. Nonetheless, Erdogan must have been discomfited by the analogies his hosts could make—erroneously.

Finally, the fight for perceptions is all about Erdogan’s and Turkey’s image in the West. Hence, his and his supporters’ vitriol is directed against the traditional bugaboo: the West. Erdogan has been all about making Turkey an equal with, if not the better of, the West in the global arena. He has come close. The Turkish economy and state seem to work whereas Europe is in disarray; Turkish diplomacy is in full gear and something to be taken seriously.

Some charlatans in Taksim have made a mess of this image. He cannot forgive them this slight. Of course, the greater irony is that he is his own victim. A policy of conciliation would not only have demonstrated that he is a statesman but also a magnanimous one at that. He blew it. And now he has to live with it.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.