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Two months ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feted the International Olympic Committee in Istanbul, courting the committee’s vote for Turkey’s cosmopolitan cultural capital to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Over the past few days, in that same city, tear gas has wafted over centuries-old mosques as police clashed with growing crowds of angry Turks, sending more than a thousand to the hospital and, according to some reports, a few to the morgue.
When a small group of environmentalists banded together on May 28 to save an Istanbul park from being turned into a shopping mall, their sit-in hardly seemed likely to spark what is already being called the Turkish Spring. The government’s harsh response—eventually water cannon and tear gas would be used—spurred popular outrage that quickly spread to Ankara, Izmir and more than a dozen other cities and towns across the country. The Turks’ reaction seems to have caught Prime Minister Erdoğan, not to mention many Western observers, entirely by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The unrest has been long brewing.
For the casual tourist or visiting congressman in Turkey in recent months, Mr. Erdoğan likely appeared to be on a roll. His Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish abbreviation AKP, had won three straight general elections since 2002, increasing its popular vote to 50% in 2011 from 34% in the first election. Mr. Erdoğan’s able economic stewardship—coupled with falling fertility and a large working-age population—fostered unprecedented economic growth. In 2010 and 2011, growth exceeded 8%, putting Turkey behind only China in terms of modern, non-oil-based economies. Istanbul was booming.
Mr. Erdoğan appeared to relish suggesting to Turks that he was unstoppable. Upon winning his latest term, he compared himself to the 16th-century Ottoman architect Sinan, who built Istanbul’s most glorious monuments. The prime minister has certainly aspired to remake the country: In recent years, Mr. Erdoğan began work on a third Istanbul airport and a new bridge to span the Bosporus. He has promised to dig a 30-mile “second Bosporus” to connect the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. The prime minister has also proposed to build a giant mosque, capable of accommodating 30,000 worshipers, on a hilltop above the city.
Riding high and dominating all branches of government, the charismatic Mr. Erdoğan dispensed with political compromise and doubled down on Islamism and old vendettas. He antagonized Turkey’s minority Alevi population—one-quarter of Turkey’s 75 million citizens—by naming the new Istanbul bridge now under construction after Selim I, a 16th-century sultan who massacred 40,000 Alevis. The proposed skyline-dominating mosque antagonized secularists, and new laws that would dramatically restrict the purchase and drinking of alcohol in Istanbul’s Western-leaning districts provoked liberals. So on May 31, when Mr. Erdoğan dismissed the environmentalist protesters as “marginal elements” after the first police assault, for many it was the last straw.
Washington over the past decade has made a habit of celebrating Turkey as a model of Muslim democracy. But from Turks’ perspective, economic and political freedom have become increasingly elusive.
While Turkey’s balance sheet looks good at first glance—its debt-to-GDP ratio was 36% in 2012, compared with the U.S.’s 105%—Mr. Erdoğan has accumulated more foreign debt in his rule than all of Turkey’s previous prime ministers combined. Last year’s drop in growth to 2.2% from 8.8% in 2011 was a wake-up call that Turkey might not always be able to make its payments. Turks are also saddled by household debt, which has increased 3,600% since the AKP took office.
Against this backdrop, many Turks are enraged by signs that Mr. Erdoğan and his aides have enriched themselves while in power. Few believe the prime minister’s explanation that his newfound wealth—millions of dollars in property and a reputed eight Swiss bank accounts, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks—is the result of wedding gifts received by his son.
Turks remember that 13 corruption cases pending from his Istanbul mayoral tenure remain suspended only because he enjoys parliamentary immunity. Many Turks suspect that Mr. Erdoğan’s personal investment in the redevelopment of Taksim Square—where the protesters now face off against police—is quite literal.
The past week’s protests have highlighted the lack of press freedom in Turkey. Exhibit A: As police attacked the protesters, CNN Türk broadcast a cooking show. Tens of thousands of Turks have signed petitions calling on CNN in the U.S. to cut ties with its pro-Erdoğan affiliate. For reporters who do cover the government critically, such pursuits can be dangerous: Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Alas, signs of the Obama administration’s benign indifference to matters in Turkey may have convinced the prime minister that he has a free pass. When President Obama wanted to laud U.S.-Turkish ties last month to mark Mr. Erdoğan’s Washington visit, the White House placed the president’s article in Sabah, formerly an opposition newspaper before it was seized by the Turkish government in 2007 and transferred to Mr. Erdoğan’s son-in-law. The same day that the two leaders met, the Turkish government confiscated yet another opposition media company. President Obama was silent.
With the protests continuing, many Turks fear that Mr. Erdogan may soon target social media—an important form of communication for the protesters. “There is now a scourge that is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there,” the prime minister declared on June 3. “To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
As he consolidates power and contends with protesters, Mr. Erdoğan appears to have little to fear from the military, which in past decades might have imposed its wishes on the government. Beginning in 2007, Mr. Erdoğan imprisoned dozens of Turkish generals—a power play that won cheers in many diplomatic circles because he had excised the military’s role in politics. But the prime minister also refused to allow any new body to serve as constitutional guarantors. Bülent Arınç, now Mr. Erdoğan’s chief deputy, famously threatened to dissolve the constitutional court if it found AKP legislation unconstitutional. Mr. Erdoğan’s efforts to write a new constitution—one that would cement his power into the next decade—have convinced many Turks that the street protests now rocking the country are secularism’s last stand.
As Istanbul’s mayor, Mr. Erdoğan once said: “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Perhaps desperate to find in Turkey proof that Islamism is compatible with democracy, the West has refused to believe what Turks know: Mr. Erdoğan arrived at his stop years ago.
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