Tayyip Erdogan has walked Turkey's political stage unchallenged for a decade, bringing powerful generals to heel and driving economic success that has changed the face of the country, spreading its influence across the region.
But unprecedented protests and riots may
now set limits to the power of a prime minister widely seen as victim of the
same uncompromising and emotional manner that has helped him to three successive
election victories. They may also bury his hopes of assuming a new more powerful
executive presidency next year.
"There are deputies and officials in the
party who are unhappy about recent developments," said a source close to the AKP
party Erdogan led to power in 2002, crushing established parties mired in
accusations of incompetence and corruption.
"This is an unprecedented
situation for Erdogan. Some people in the AKP think that his policies have to
soften, but they remain loyal to party discipline and to Erdogan
Supporters on Twitter, echoing the emotional drama of recent
days, declare they would not abandon Erdogan to the same fate as his two
political heroes, a prime minister hanged after a 1960 military coup and a
president some say was poisoned.
Police use of tear gas and water cannon
against a small demonstration over an Istanbul building project on Friday
ignited protests across Turkey, drawing in social groups including
professionals, unionists and a large proportion of young people who had known no
other prime minister.
Erdogan only swelled their ranks by dismissing
protesters as "looters" and promising with familiar candour: "If this is about
holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20,000, I will
get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring
together one million."
The more measured comments of
President Abdullah Gul and deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc, AKP cofounders
along with Erdogan, seemed to sit ill with Erdogan's bluster.
Arinc met after Erdogan's departure on a North Africa visit. After the meeting,
Arinc offered an olive branch by apologising to demonstrators for police
excesses. Erdogan, presumably with the accord of the two, is for now holding his
"Erdogan takes things very personally," said Cengiz Candar, a
journalists who has closely followed Erdogan from his days in a small Islamist
party and his imprisonment for reciting a poem about religion to his rise to the
pinnacle of power.
"He has developed a very authoritarian
Erdogan's early reforming zeal brought tangible human rights
reforms, including Kurdish minority rights, the opening of European Union entry
talks and abolition of a military-dominated National Security Council with broad
control of state affairs.
More recently he has been criticised at home
and abroad over a wide-ranging coup investigation, heavy pressure on the media
and restrictions on alcohol retail that critics attribute to religious motives
rather than health concerns.
Those familiar with Erdogan say he does not
take well to personal challenges.
Excoriation on the streets and Western
criticism over police action, will have been still more galling. Syrian advice
to its citizens to avoid travel to neighbouring Turkey "for their own safety"
would only have added an extra twist to the screw.
Erdogan's mistake may
have been to fundamentally misjudge the nature of the protests as they developed
In a speech, he compared them to past Istanbul "Republic"
protests organised by militant secularists accusing Erdogan of trying to replace
Turkey's secular republic with an Islamist order. At one rally, banners urged
army intervention against Erdogan. That meeting was later cited in treason
trials as part of a plot to destabilise Turkey and trigger a military
Erdogan denies accusations of secret Islamist
Perhaps Erdogan's greatest service to democracy in Turkey -
though some critics view it as a campaign intended only to safeguard his own
power - has been the breaking of the power of the military, which toppled four
governments in the second half of the 20th century. Hundreds of officers have
been jailed after coup trials that have inflicted deep wounds on the
The speech held another insight into Erdogan's frame of mind.
Tellingly, he also likened Taksim protests to incidents leading up to a 1960
coup against prime minister Adnan Menderes.
"This attitude is...(that) of
those who cannot tolerate governments who come to power through elections," he
said. "It's the attitude of those who call the people 'blockheads' and 'belly
Erdogan identifies zealously with Menderes, who has gone
down in Turkish history as something of a tragic figure.
decades of unchallenged rule by the party of secular state founder Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk, the CHP, and introduced liberal reforms; but he later fell prey to the
same uncompromising and authoritarian style that won him election.
career ended on a military gallows in 1961.
Erdogan, underlining his
legitimacy as leader, points to the 50 percent vote he received in the last
election and his clear majority in parliament. He still has no credible rival,
nor is there any significant opposition in parliament.
protests of the past if anything increased his support, especially in the
conservative heartland of central Anatolia. But this favour is by no means
assured after Taksim.
"I don't think Erdogan has
the 51 percent any more ... He has 25 percent confirmed that are loyal to him,"
said Koray Caliskan, associate professor at Bogazici University.
at parliament ... and met many AKP MPs. One of them said 'The prime minister
says one thing, while the President says another. We can't speak freely in the
Group. There's no democracy. This needs to be discussed but it can't
The lesson for Erdogan, according to critics and some allies, is
that he must take account of the 49 percent who did not vote for him, and those
of that number who never will trust him.
Among them are influential parts
of business and the middle classes, who may have benefited from AKP economic
stewardship that has tripled per capita income, but view his long-term plans and
his personality with deep suspicion.
The protests could yet build from
the motley gathering of very disparate activists on Taksim Square. What may be
emerging is an irreverent civil society garnered, ironically, by
For now, he remains unchallenged leader of the AKP, whatever the
fears haunting some parts of the party.
The triumvirate of Erdogan, Gul
and Arinc remains intact.
If they were driven apart it would not be by
questions of strategy - they are 'old comrades' bonded by years in the political
wilderness of political Islam in the 1980s and 1990s. What could conceivably
divide them are tactics and personality.
Frictions between Erdogan and
Gul, the power axis of the party, have broken into the open on
When Gul complained about the long detention of suspects in a
coup plot investigation, Erdogan responded in minutes with a public rebuke for
the president. When Gul met officials of Kurdish party the BDP last year over a
flare-up in the Kurdish rebellion in the southeast, he was again publicly
Everything here would appear to hinge on Erdogan's
continued ability to patch up spats with Gul and maintain mutual respect,
however pressure mounts.
"Mr President and Mr Prime Minister can have
different characters, styles, they can have different views on specific issues,
but to reflect that as a general difference of views is incorrect. There is no
problem between Mr President and Mr Prime Minister," said AKP MP Professor
Erdogan was believed to be planning to stand for a
powerful new executive presidency next year, perhaps with Gul moving to a
subordinate prime minister's role. But moves to create that presidency appear to
have foundered in parliament.
This would leave Erdogan either to stand
for the non-executive presidency in 2014, with Gul heading to the prime ministry
as the guiding force, or to serve out what under the constitution would be a
final term as premier ending in 2015.
Erdogan has already set his stamp
on Turkish history as the most significant leader since Ataturk; but he will
have to show consummate skill to establish himself yet as the man who united a
country still uneasy in its skin 90 years after Ataturk ended an Asian theocracy
and imposed a western-style secular state.