Erdogan Opts for War

Why does Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opt for confrontation rather than reconciliation?

al-monitor Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a heavily armed security agent at his back, addresses supporters in Ankara, June 9, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.
Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol


Topics covered

reconciliation, political opportunism

Jun 10, 2013

Since the beginning of the mass protests against the Turkish government some 12 days ago, all Turkish statesmen who spoke on the topic made conciliatory statements — from President Abdullah Gül to İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş, from Vice Prime Minister Bülent Arinç to İstanbul governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu. However, at the end, all of their softening messages were swept aside by a very notable exception: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since his return to Turkey from North Africa on the night of Thursday, June 6, Erdoğan has made at least half a dozen public speeches to cheerful audiences, which are made up of his core supporters. In all of them, he was defiant, uncompromising, and often heated.  He promised that he would move on with this controversial Taksim project, and kept on condemning the “looters” in the streets who opposed it. (He had a point; some protesters really engaged in vandalism, but Erdoğan’s willing inability to see the peaceful unrest only heightens the tension.) He also condemned the “interest (usury) lobby” and “those who want to halt Turkey’s progress” — mythical forces that Erdoğan and his cadre blame for orchestrating the protests in the streets.

Worse, Erdoğan said on Sunday, June 9, that he has been “patient enough” with the protesters, and can soon “talk to them in the way they understand.” This probably means that he can, once again, unleash the police on the thousands who have turned the Gezi Park, where all this tension began, into a camp. This also means that clashes between the police and the protesters, which have calmed down to some extent thanks to President Gül and other moderate officials, may re-emerge, pushing Turkey into a deeper tension.

But why does Erdoğan do this? Why does he opt for a political war with a part of this own nation rather than peace and reconciliation?

I have three answers: The first is Erdoğan’s personality. He has made his career as a brave and defiant leader who never bows down to anybody. This was very helpful to Turkey when that “anybody” was the military, who had kept on curbing Turkish democracy for decades. But when that “anybody” is just ordinary people on the streets, Erdoğan’s boldness becomes a recipe for conflict.

This particular personality has been further sharpened by Erdoğan’s increasingly personal power over the past decade — “Power corrupts,” as Lord Acton once put it. Erdoğan’s purely majoritarian understanding of democracy — whoever gets the majority calls all the shots — also makes matters worse. The result is a leader who understands the implementation of democracy mainly as the exercise of his own elected, but unlimited, power. 

The second answer is Turkish political culture, which is a perfect fit for venerating patriarchal personalities. This is a culture which loves all-knowing and all-powerful leaders who go after their opponents relentlessly. (Other examples are Atatürk, “the father of the Turks,” and Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of many Kurds.) That is why when Erdoğan condemns his opponents with the harshest words, he gets the most enthusiastic applause from his fans.

Another aspect of Turkish political culture — an addiction to conspiracy theories — is also at work at here. Just like the Kemalists that they have defeated, Erdoğan and his propagandists explain away all the negative reaction they receive from society by coming up with imaginary plots by imaginary forces. The result of this particular way of seeing the world is infinite self-righteousness and zero self-criticism. 

Finally, there is the political strategy of Erdoğan. He knows that polarization of Turkish society on primordial values — religion being the core — has helped him in the past decade, and he probably wants to repeat that in the weeks and months to come. There are local elections in seven months, which will not change the central government but will be a major indicator for the presidential and parliamentary elections that will follow. Apparently, Erdoğan’s goal is to win yet another victory before those local elections — against the protesters and all the mythical forces behind them — and thus secure an even larger election victory.

However, this is a very risky game. Nobody knows what will happen if the clashes between the police and the protesters reignite, and if more deaths occur. (Three people, one of them from the police, already lost their lives.) Also, nobody knows how badly the economy — the prime reason for Erdoğan’s electoral success — will be hurt. Worse, I doubt even Erdoğan knows what he will do if all these risks turn into reality and Turkey gets sunk in a much deeper crisis. 

UPDATE: On the evening of June 10, Vice Prime Minister Bülent Arinç announced that Erdoğan will meet with the representatives of the protesters in Gezi Park on Wednesday, June 12. This is a better step forward on the side of the government, and shows that the tendency to raise the tension is partly balanced with the willingness to reconcile.

But we will see what happens on Wednesday. This might be the last chance for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. 

Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign AffairsNewsweekThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal and The Guardian

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