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Erdogan’s personality cult
By ORAY EGIN
17/06/2012
With his strong popularity and charismatic leadership it appears Erdogan can take Turkey country in any direction he pleases.
 
A few weeks ago two of Turkey’s most popular soccer teams, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, met for the last game of the season in Istanbul. It would determine the league champion, and given the everlasting rivalry between two teams, Fenerbahçe supporters weren’t happy with Galatasaray taking the lead. So a brouhaha began. Players rushed to their locker rooms waiting for the crowd to calm down. But then another problem emerged: Turkey’s Soccer Federation wanted to hand the championship cup to Galatasaray in their locker room, yet the team objected to this attempt. It became obvious that someone charismatic and experienced in conflict resolution was needed to overcome this crisis.

An executive of Galatasaray eventually delivered the message: “‘Beyefendi’ says that the cup should be handed on the field.”

“Beyefendi,” loosely translated as “gentleman,” is an honorific used after a man’s first name. However, “Beyefendi” no longer needs a name attached to it since pretty much everybody knows who it is referring to: Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even his staff refers to Erdogan as just “Beyefendi,” including the ministers of his cabinet and media members.

“Beyefendi” is regularly called upon for even the most minor detail, such as the handing out of the championship cup. In a speech last week, Erdogan openly admitted that he is “responsible for anything in his country, since he is the prime minister.”

Not a day passes without Erdogan sparking a public debate out of the blue.

When he detests a statue, calling it “monstrous,” they tear it down. The local municipality removes al fresco dining tables when Erdogan expresses his discontent with sidewalk diners. Just recently a couple of fictional characters in a television series had to get married when Erdogan’s administration expressed its concerns about the show promoting bachelorhood. Another character in another show proposed to his longtime girlfriend; a wedding scene is expected to wrap up the season finale.

Erdogan’s favorite target is the media.

Any journalist who is overtly critical of him faces termination and is unable to work anywhere else. Since 2007, Turkey’s leading daily newspaper Hürriyet alone had to fire seven dissident columnists and demote its editor-in-chief.

Just recently a pro-government paper fired its Washington correspondent in order not to upset “Beyefendi” should he have read his column. One of Erdogan’s aides stated that he hadn’t.

Even The Wall Street Journal suffered from Erdogan’s wrath when they printed a story on the Uludere massacre, a botched military air strike that resulted in the deaths of 34 innocent civilians.

When the Journal uncovered that the intelligence that led to the strike came from the Pentagon, Erdogan furiously claimed that the paper was motivated by its anti-Obama agenda. He also managed to squeeze in a conspiracy theory involving “the Jewish lobby”; his all-time favorite imagined enemy.

The massacre in Uludere raised questions in the media about the military’s operations against the Kurdish minority who held Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party government responsible.

The Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin argued that no apology was necessary while denouncing the victims as “extras” of Kurdish separatist organization PKK. Turning a deaf ear to the critics Erdogan successfully managed to change the agenda.

Creating a false equivalency between deaths of innocent civilians and abortions up to 10 weeks from conception which have been legal in Turkey since 1982, he declared “each abortion is one Uludere.” He also argued that increasing C-section births are part of a conspiracy to halt Turkey’s population growth! Turkey, in its entire history, including the past decade under Erdogan, never had an abortion debate. It was not until Erdogan’s latest remarks that other members of his cabinet publicly denounced pro-choice policies.

“Victims of rape should not refrain from giving birth” Health Minister Recep Akdag said. “The state will raise their babies.”

His ministry is now drafting a new law to ban abortion after four weeks of pregnancy, a limit which medical experts determine to be outrageous. However, when “Beyefendi” leads, his party’s lawmakers are sure to follow.

These latest remarks about abortion resulted in outrage among urban voters and mainstream media but the criticism does not hurt Erdogan’s popularity a bit.

All the polls suggest that Erdogan’s popularity continues to rise. Covering AK Party’s stadium rally in Istanbul two weeks ago, Asli Aydintasbas of daily Milliyet warned that his party relies only on “cult of personality” rather than any political ideology. After the same rally another columnist compared Erdogan’s appearance and propaganda methods to ‘30s’ Europe. Many political analysts suggest that Erdogan is heading towards creating a new office of presidency, preparing to endow this post with greater powers and the stadium rally was just a “rehearsal.”

With his strong popularity and charismatic leadership it appears that Erdogan can take the country to any direction as he pleases. He is currently unchallenged in Turkey’s political sphere as the opposition parties continue to shrink. Therefore he is likely to be the Turkey’s first popularly elected president. But the “Beyefendi’s presidency will probably be less likely to resemble the American presidency, with its built-in checks and balances, then the ‘Turkmenbashi,” the dictator of Turkmenistan.

The writer is a columnist at The Turkish newspaper Aksam daily.
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