When Erdogan returns

As Turkey’s protest movement entered its second week, embattled Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced a difficult choice.

June 5, 2013 21:25
3 minute read.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

turkish PM Erdogan 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer )

As Turkey’s protest movement entered its second week, embattled Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced a difficult choice.

Should he cancel his three-day visit to North Africa or continue as planned? Erdogan chose the latter, an act intended to show that the recent demonstrations engulfing his country would have no affect on his resolve or schedule.

This was quite a gamble. Not only has his leaving the country been viewed by protesters and opposition leaders as irresponsible and even cowardly, but when he returns Erdogan will face a transformed political climate.

Protests, with activists openly calling for Erdogan to resign, have spread to nearly every major city in the country from the epicenters of the movement in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara to the eastern cities of Antakya, Mardin and Van.

The 240,000-strong Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK) declared its solidarity with the protesters against “state terror.” No longer can Erdogan dismiss the activists as mere “looters,” “marginal elements” or “drunks.”

The two-day union strike starting Wednesday threatens to shut down schools, universities and public offices, deeply affecting the economy. This economy, the pride of Erdogan’s decade in power, has already shown vulnerability.

Not only is the country’s stock market down by six percent, but also bond prices have fallen as did the lira. Some analysts now predict that Turkey’s annual GDP growth of 5% may reduce to 3.5% in the coming year.

Turkey’s tourist industry, the sixth biggest in the world and worth over $20 billion, is also likely to be hit. As it enters its peak summer season several countries including Britain and the United States have issued travel warnings to avoid areas affected by the protests. In Istanbul, over 40% of hotel reservations have been either postponed or canceled.

Often hailed as a model Muslim democracy, Turkey’s international standing has already been affected. US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern over the excessive use of force by the Turkish police. Similar sentiments were expressed by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The UN’s human rights office has called for an investigation into the heavy-handed police tactics and potential abuse of human rights. Even Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Syria’s Bashar Assad, has joined the condemnation.

Erdogan’s hopes of changing Turkey’s constitution to allow for greater powers for the president, an office he is keen to take after his term as prime minister, is now but a distant dream.

Worse for Erdogan still, cracks within his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) are emerging.

Erdogan has insisted he will stick to his decision to redesign Gezi Park. But Erdogan’s former culture and tourism minister, Ertugrul Gunay, has spoken out against the project. “The few remaining green areas in Istanbul’s district of Beyoglu shouldn’t be turned into a shopping mall just so that somebody can make a profit,” declared Gunay.

Almost immediately after Erdogan’s departure, Abdullah Gul, who holds the largely ceremonial office of president, defended the right of citizens to protest.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made an apology for the violent police response to the initial protests. “We are open to all reactions, all demands within democratic culture and the legal framework,” Arinc publically stated.

This is not the first time that the three leading founders of the AKP have found themselves at odds. The AKP was never a united political body, but rather a working consensus of various political factions united in order to govern. Now under the stress of the protests, the balance of the troika is being shaken. Some analysts have noted that both Gul, Arinc and other senior members of the AKP are frustrated by Erdogan and his ambition to became president after his term as prime minister finishes.

Erdogan told reporters before leaving Turkey, “On my return from this visit, the problems will be solved.” But protestors seem determined to stay put and their presence has an air of permanence.

In the Taksim area of Istanbul a library has been established as has an orchestra.

Free food stands are everywhere. Even Yoga classes are being run.

When Erdogan returns to Turkey he will find that his troubles have not gone away, and he will have to navigate a completely different political landscape.

Emre Caliskan is a London-based freelance journalist writing on Turkey and Middle East Affairs.

Simon A. Waldman is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London.

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