Erdogan's Carrot-and-Stick Approach To Protests a Loser

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should seek inclusive policies, not engage in witch hunts.

al-monitor Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling Justice and Development Party at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, June 25, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

turkish central bank, journalists, erdogan, alevis

Jun 26, 2013

It is becoming more or less clear what survival strategy the government and the prime minister will adopt.

This strategy can be summarized as a “witch hunt” against those seen as instigators of protests, while taking some steps to soothe the intensive criticism of the government.

Erdogan is planning to expedite some democratic opening moves related to Kurdish and Alevi issues to overcome his image erosion internally and externally. In other words, Erdogan plans for a classic carrot-and-stick strategy.

Can such a strategy restore Erdogan’s former power? Can Erdogan put the Gezi crisis behind him, without scars, with such a strategy? It will not be possible to answer these questions without properly understanding the prevailing atmosphere following the crisis set off by Gezi Park protests.

First, the sticks: Erdogan never softened his harsh and finger-pointing narratives against certain segments since day one of the protests. On June 25, addressing his party’s parliamentarians, he again accused many groups and people. For example, he said the owners of the Divan Hotel that opened its doors to injured protesters had committed a crime. The Divan Hotel belongs to Koc Holding, one of the biggest capital groups of the country. In his recent statements, Erdogan has been frequently targeting this group. In his earlier speeches, he had furiously targeted Cem Boyner, the owner of the Boyner Group, another major capital holding of Turkey and the CEO of Garanti Bank, one of the top banks of the country, because of their words of sympathy for the protesters.

The people Erdogan has targeted openly or by insinuation are not only these. He continues with the intimidation of artists and columnists who support the protesters.

But the prime minister also dangles carrots: According to reports leaking from the Council of Ministers, the government is planning to implement some concrete measures to continue with its Kurdish opening with mother tongue education, strengthening local administrations, softening the Law for Combating Terrorism and granting amnesty to PKK militants who have given up their guns.

We also understand from statements of government circles that a series of concrete measures are envisaged to address Alevi grievances with financial support to Alevi cemevis [houses of worship] and their religious officials, naming two universities after historically renowned Alevi personalities and allotting more space to Alevis in school textbooks.

Can the government and Erdogan repair the damage to their images so badly weakened internally and externally? Can these steps succeed while the government still pursues its anti-democratic handling of the Gezi Park protests? It is difficult to answer these questions affirmatively.

Erdogan doesn’t seem to comprehend even the social tremors caused by naming the third bridge across the Bosphorus after Yavuz Sultan Selim, who has been seared into Alevi collective conscience as the Ottoman sultan who had carried out the worst massacres of Alevis.

Similarly, Erdogan and his government don’t seem to understand how the masses had accumulated such anger in the lead-up to the Gezi Park protests. In Turkey, where numerous columnists and TV producers were fired just because they criticized Erdogan, the government is in control of a significant portion of the media. The extend of this control emerged in a tragicomedy manner for all to see after Turkey’s major news channels preferred to run documentaries on penguins instead of covering the protests.

With the columnists kicked out of the newspapers and the media under increasing control, a vital channel of criticism, anger and grievances against the government is missing. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the current status of the media had a major role in eruptions of anger that led to Gezi Park events.

The government appears not to have learned from developments. To the contrary, it has intensified its control over the media. Daily Aksam was seized by official Savings Insurance Fund because of its unpaid debts and a former AKP member of the parliament, Mehmet Ocaktan, was appointed as its new editor-in-chief. Three Aksam columnists who had supported the Gezi protests were axed.

Another development signaling that the government’s pressure on the media will be even more suffocating happened at daily Sabah, which is known for its affinity to the government. Daily Sabah censored an article by its own ombudsman, Yavuz Baydar, who criticized the paper’s handling of the Gezi Park protests.

There are signs that the stick shown by the government is endangering the carrots it plans to offer. For example, there are signs of cracks in the Wise People Commission that the government had formed to deal with the Kurdish issue. Murat Belge, who said the attitude of the government is making solution of the Kurdish issue difficult, resigned. Belge’s letter of resignation had some clear warnings to the government:

"What we call ‘peace’ needs a climate, an atmosphere. But we are facing a government that has declared war all around, that threatens to mobilize half of society against the other half. We can’s say ‘Gezi is something else, the process is something else.’ In a society everything is interrelated. … The prime minister’s remarks, the labels he affixes, the language he uses for the Gezi Park resistance are a personal insult to me. I find it meaningless and impossible to go and talk with the prime minister as if the Gezi events did not happen, and there are no such insults.”

In recent days, there have been many comments on how the harsh attitude of Erdogan to the Gezi protests is also threatening the economy. World-famous economist Daren Acemoglu says the withdrawal of hot money from the economy and the prime minister’s accusing of the “interest lobby” for the Gezi events have restricted the ability of the Central Bank to intervene in the economy. That has brought Turkey face to face with the "syndrome of sudden stop."

As Murat Belge says, it seems far-fetched for  Erdogan who gives the impression of being at war with the entire world, and who has launched a witch hunt to restore his "democratic leader" image and put an end to the unrest in the country with some steps he may take in some matters as the Kurdish issue.

With the carrot-and-stick strategy Erdogan has in mind, Turkey is heading into a peculiar process whose results cannot be predicted by anyone in the days to come. How Turkey will make it through this period will also determine Erdogan’s political future. 

Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a Turkish NGO that works on human-rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled. Since 2002, Cengiz has been the lawyer for the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches.

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