When things are his way, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expounds democratic values and there’s no denying that on his watch his country has largely enjoyed economic stability and global respect. However, when problems arise, his usually poised veneer is seen to crack in a very unpleasant fashion raising the question: Is he a wolf in benign democratic clothing?
For instance, during his visit to the site of a mining disaster that robbed the lives of at almost 300 miners in the town of Soma, he was caught on video confronting a distraught anti-government demonstrator with the words “Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?” a curse that was naturally picked-up by the Israeli media. It’s suggested he actually struck the object of his vitriol, a young miner called Taner Karuca, who told the Turkish press that the prime minister’s slap was “unintentional”. What certainly wasn’t unintentional was the subsequent beating he received from Erdogan’s bodyguards that left scars and bruising on his shoulders and arms. Clearly, Karuca has wisely softened his version of the facts for fear of repercussions.
That unfortunate incident comes on the heels of a video showing a member of his smartly suited entourage brutally kicking another demonstrator while he was being restrained by soldiers. Erdogan’s condolence speech was slammed for being unsympathetic; rather than show contrition on behalf of the authorities, he went out of his way to play down the tragedy, saying “accidents like this happen all over the world” while citing various examples, which was not at all what the grieving crowd wanted to hear. In response to calls for his resignation, he yelled, “Come here and jeer at me,” sounding more like a macho muscleman than a responsible leader.
A week ago, the PM vented his ire on the head of the country’s bar association at a judicial ceremony, accusing his target of insulting the government before walking out. Erdogan has won few fans within the judiciary after his shake-up of judges and police investigating government corruption which led to an undignified parliamentary brawl resulting in the hospitalisation of some opposition lawmakers.
Beset by corruption scandals close to home and growing resentment against his newly adopted authoritarianism, Erdogan has visibly lost his cool, so much so that President Abdullah Gul has become openly critical at times, while, at others, he gives the impression there’s hardly a chink of light between them. Gul was certainly not amused by the barring of social media sites, including Twitter, a ban that was largely circumvented.
While it’s true that the AKP Party has retained its country-wide popularity, as was evidenced from the results of local elections, if Erdogan is unable or unwilling to hold himself and his tongue in check, the presidency, until recently, considered his for the asking, may be elusive. But analysts generally believe he has banked enough successes and credibility to achieve victory in August when the ballot is scheduled. There are no guarantees, however, now that blue collar workers have been antagonised over Erdogan’s response to the Soma tragedy. They’re calling for strikes and protests, with some unions said to be collaborating with urban dissenters and ‘Gezi Park’ activists to bring the government down.
Erdogan may be Teflon Man for now, able to withstand scandals, such as his leaked conversation with one of his sons on the topic of where to hide the money, but if Turkey’s ‘miraculous economy’ continues its slowdown and the Turkish lira slides further against other currencies, his base will swiftly lose its rose-coloured spectacles when his own party could decide he’s more of a liability than an asset.
Moreover, Turkey’s bid for EU membership, becoming more dust-covered by the day is receding as European politicians conclude his style of governance does not accord with European values in terms of media freedoms, judicial independence and the right to protest, which nowadays is being met with tear gas and water cannon. Press freedoms have been assaulted by a new so-called intelligence law making the publication of leaked secrets a criminal offence with prison terms of up to nine years. A Turkish columnist was recently sentenced to ten months for “insulting public officials” on Twitter. Last year, Turkey was cited as being the world’s leading jailer of journalists together with China and Iran.
Erdogan is embarrassing his partners in the international community, especially in the West, but they’re holding back from being openly critical because as a Nato country that hosts a US airbase, its usefulness to western security and geopolitical interests overrides its government’s murky interior policies. In February, US lawmakers urged President Barack Obama to give Erdogan a public ticking-off for what they termed “undermining democracy”.
He is also under fire from neighbouring countries for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially Egypt, which has downgraded its diplomatic relations with Turkey for interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Ankara’s once close ties with Israel are still rocky over an attack by Israeli commandos on a Turkish vessel attempting to break the siege of Gaza in 2010, and the country’s links with Iran and Iraq have cooled over its position vis-a-vis Syria.
The prime minister may be correct in believing his ascendency to the presidency is almost a done deal, but what’s certain is that he’s in for a rollercoaster of a ride.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org