How Did Erdogan Wind Up So Alone?
Though not its original intention, the demonstrations in Turkey are widening the cracks between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül.
ISTANBUL- On Tuesday, it fell to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç to be summoned to the presidential palace. In Ankara, he met with President of the Republic Abdullah Gül in order to assess the country’s situation after a week of rising demonstrations against the government.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ever bristling with confidence, did nothing to alter his political calendar, taking off for a three-day visit to North Africa –- Morocco, Algeria, and then Tunisia where the “Arab Spring” was born.
With the angry Prime Minister gone, Gûl and Arinç had the stage to push their desire to bring these events to a peaceful end. Arinç said he was “saddened,” and openly criticized the use of tear gas by the force against the demonstrators.
As for Abdullah Gül, he spoke just 30 minutes after his Prime Minister's plane took off, broadcasting a message for “moderation on all sides,” Erdogan included. Before his departure, the Prime Minister himself had denied that there was any kind of “Turkish spring” underway, and accused the demonstrators of following “extremists … connected” with foreigners.
Gül underlined the fact that democracy can’t be reduced to an electoral process, in contradiction with what his Prime Minister had said hours before. The schism between the two men, who have each been climbing their respective political ladder for 20 years, seems to be widening. They were both from the Turkish political Islamic branch and the Milli Görüs (“national vision”) movement of Necmettin Erkaban.
They were considered in the 1990s as the leaders of the reformist trend within the Islamic movement. Gül is the older of the two, a rather consensual scholarly figure, whereas Erdogan is a child from a humble Istanbul neighborhood with a strict religious education.
The Prime Minister is plainspoken and his personality is what makes him a charismatic leader, faithfully supported by the conservative working people of Turkey. He’s the kind of man to call you by your first name and pat you on the back.
Erdogan grew up amongst the different faces of Istanbul, first along the street of the Kasimpacha district, then between the local mosque and the soccer stadium. He is skilled at traveling in various settings.
The poor neighborhood where he grew up became his first electoral base that led him to victory in the race for mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Already at the age of 40, the world was getting to know Erdogan's determination and his strength, while the city on the Bosphorus became the laboratory of both one man's political career and the national Islamic party.
A pragmatic side
Erdogan is someone who stays true to both his principles and his friends. He’s a ruler who trusts the people he likes, more pragmatic than ideological. His friends from the old Kasimpacha district would eventually follow him to the capital of Ankara. The former director of his local soccer club became the minister of sports, an old friend was made Transport Minister. The people who serve him are rewarded, those attempting to stand in his way are coldly removed. Such was the fate of Abdüllatif Sener, one of the founders of his party (AKP), who became in 2007 one of those most critical of Erdogan’s very personal way of ruling. He was quickly forced out of the party.
Gül has mostly stayed in the shadows, but keeps an eye on things. When the AKP won the December 2002 legislative elections, Erdogan was forced to sit out during a period of ineligibility after having declared that the Islamists shall have their revenge over the military, the keepers of the godless temple. He paraphrased a poem: “The mosques will be our barracks, the Minarets our bayonets, the believers our soldiers.” Gül temporarily replaced him and then went on to become his Foreign Minister.
After a first term supported by a healthy economy, Erdogan was reelected in 2007 with more than 47% of the votes. The impressive victory pushed the AKP to take on what it saw as the destabilizing efforts from the ultra-nationalist wing of the army and the “deep state,” a conglomerate of organisms supposed to prevent any evolution. The bold challenge confirmed the unwavering will of the Turkish leader.
But the problem for Erdogan has been his lust for the presidential seat, which still evades him. He had to let Gül take this position, who would eventually emerge as a potential nemesis.
Still, since 2007, Erdogan has been more of a manager than a conqueror. Until the outbreak of the protests, he'd been largely cruising on the healthy Turkish economy, which is his best electoral argument. But he has claimed that he couldn’t set his country on the path of full democratization because of the sputtering negotiations to make Turkey part of the European Union. But without this alibi, the government has wound up in a sort of paternalistic populism with hints of authoritarian reflexes from both nationalist Kemalism and religious conservatism.
After ten years and two reelections, Erdogan's power is crumbling. No real opposition against the AKP means no self-reflection. The Prime Minister has isolated himself, now surrounded by only a few trusted friends, his wife and daughter. Last year, he underwent colon surgery for what were reported to be benign polyps.
By every sign, he appears absolutely resolved to run for president, who will be chosen through universal suffrage –- a first -- in 2014. His most serious adversary will, quite obviously, be the current occupant: Abdullah Gül.