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Turkey’s Deepening Polarization

A recent poll shows declining support for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and AKP policies.
Anti-government protesters, with the New mosque in the background, gather over the Galata bridge in Istanbul June 16, 2013. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters at an Istanbul parade ground on Sunday as riot police fired teargas several kilometres away in the city centre to disperse anti-government protesters. Riot police fired teargas into side streets around the central Taksim Square as he spoke, trying to prevent protesters from regrouping after hundreds were

The struggle for freedom and peaceful coexistence in Turkey is intensifying. The events triggered spontaneously by the struggle for saving the trees in Gezi Park have now entered a new phase, where all social actors are speaking in a higher pitch.

The transition to this new phase is marked by the breaking of yet another taboo in Turkey — the one shielding Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been glorified to the utmost and gained an untouchable status among his supporters over the past five or six years. This, however, is natural because the social transformation under way is so profound that it leaves no room for breeding taboos and cults.

Optimists believe that the new phase is inevitable for the maturing Turkish democracy and that the diverse social structure, both strong and porous in terms of identities, would not acquiesce to any new tutelage or a high-handed authoritarian order.

They may be right. But this only underscores the main axis of conflict in the new phase. The escalating fight will be between the proponents of freedom, diversity and tolerance and those who seek to only change the shackles. It is obvious that Turkey is entering a worrisome bottleneck.

Erdogan remains the key figure in this phase, too. All questions and answers are entangled in his personality and choices. Is Turkey’s prime minister part of the problem today or part of the solution? According to veteran journalist Hasan Cemal’s latest article on the T24 news site, Erdogan is “right in the heart of the problem.” Cemal writes that no one else but Erdogan transformed Gezi Park into a problem and then the problem into a crisis. “Turkey is being dragged into dangerous waters,” he adds.

If so, then a question emerges calling for a comprehensive answer: What are the genuine motives that drove the leader of an economically stable country and a politically strong government to transform protests over several trees and a replica of a historical building [Ottoman Artillery Barracks] into an issue of his own survival?

Nobody appears to buy the argument that his speeches at a series of rallies that began at Istanbul Ataturk Airport as soon as he returned from Tunisia [June 7] are linked to the upcoming municipal elections. Those speeches rather suggest that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are in the middle of a bizarre shadowboxing exercise.

Who is Erdogan’s target? It’s unclear. The picture of his “enemy” has come to resemble an amorphous and monstrous sci-fi black hole that sucks in a long list of quarters — from a few witty, urban young people who represent new politics and the main opposition to “shadowy forces within the state,” the business community, national and social media, global conspiracy cells, the European Union, US think tanks, the Israeli lobby, BBC, CNN and Reuters. This is an imaginary picture whose risks for Turkey grow as much as it expands and becomes blurred.

Why is Erdogan bent on pursuing this path? His attitude clearly contains irrational patterns. The explanations that first come to mind are his aloofness at the top, limitless hubris, the fact that his inner circle has been shaped by loyalty rather than merit, the preponderance of sycophancy and ill-advice, the lack of consultations and failure to control rage.

Yet, irrationality may not explain everything. The new “Erdogan strategy” is threatening to drag Turkey to the brink of a civil war, forfeit the new constitution drive and burn the bridges with the EU. Is it the first signal of political panic behind the scenes? Is Erdogan trying to conceal political fears by turning up the volume of his speeches to decibel limits in lining up his aides behind him in the rallies? Could it be that the AKP’s powerful electoral base has been losing blood recently?

Some clues could be found in a recent national opinion poll about public perceptions on issues such as the Kurdish peace process, the constitution deadlock and the debate over a presidential system. The survey of the Ankara-based MetroPoll has produced intriguing results.

Let’s take a look at the main topics the poll covered. Electoral support for the AKP is down by 11% in June 2013 compared with the same month last year. Erdogan’s popularity is down by 7% from April to May, and 49.6% of respondents say his attitude on the Gezi Park events is rude, tough and confrontational.

Asked about who is responsible for the escalation of the Gezi events, the respondents blame mostly the AKP, then Erdogan and then Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Those who blame “local and foreign forces” and social media range between only 0.6 and 3.2%. Those who want Gezi Park to remain a green space amount to 62.9%, as opposed to 23.3% who favor the construction of a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks. A majority of 62.1% says that media coverage of the events was unfair and 53.3% believe the media is not independent.

The survey also found that 49.9% of respondents believe the government is becoming oppressive and authoritarian, while about 36% say the commitment to reform remains intact. Other results indicate 54.5% believe the government interferes in their lifestyles, as opposed to 40% who have no such complaint.

The government’s Syria policy is opposed by 54.2% and favored by 27.4%.

Those opposed to the AKP striking a deal on a new constitution with the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) amount to 59.8%.

And then 41.7%, among them half of CHP voters and about a quarter of AKP voters, believe that “Turkey needs a new political party."

According to MetroPoll, if elections were to be held today, the vote would have been shared as follows: 35.3% for the AKP, 22.7% for the CHP, 14.5% for the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and 6.2% for the BDP. A total of 13.5% were undecided or refused to reply.

Erdogan is known to have a passion for opinion polls. If the private surveys conducted for him turn out similar results, this would be the signal of serious concerns over the country’s main issues — Syria, the Kurdish peace process, presidential system and so on — and his attitude, in addition to the perception of rampant government corruption, voiced in young religious quarters.

Those findings could perhaps help explain why Erdogan — pushing all his limits since the 2011 elections and now stuck with a jam-packed agenda — is moving closer to the MHP, bringing nationalism and religion into service and shaping a marginalized political design, away from the center and based on consolidating polarization. Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman

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