Erdogan as Ottoman sultan


The national leadership in most democracies is seldom very engaged in local council elections, leaving it to city and state politicians from their parties to carry the banner. The recent polls in Turkey were an exception to this rule: the Prime Minister, Recep Teyip Erdogan, campaigned tirelessly for weeks to ensure a victory for his Justice and Development party (AKP). In the event, his efforts were rewarded with a thumping victory, with AKP securing over 45 per cent of the votes cast. The opposition Republican People’s Party was a distant second with 30pc, while the Nationalist Movement Party limped home with 15pc.

The reason this local election became the focus for Turkish as well as international attention was that many came to see it as a referendum on Erdogan. Mired in allegations of corruption and autocratic rule, the Turkish prime minister has seen his popularity plummet among the country’s civil society and the intelligentsia. Earlier, the elites of Istanbul and Ankara had accepted Erdogan’s increasingly Islamic rule in exchange for growing economic prosperity and international influence. But after the Gezi Park protests last year, and the recent leaks about massive corruption in the ruling party, many of the liberal, educated class turned against him.

However, as the recent local polls have shown, Erdogan’s base among conservative Muslims, mostly of Anatolian origin, remains intact. For these millions of Turks, Erdogan has brought unprecedented prosperity and development. Neglected cities like Gaziantep and Mardin have seen high-rise buildings shoot up, together with income levels. Small traders and manufacturers have rapidly become millionaires.

When I first went to Konya, which houses the tomb of the Sufi poet and saint, Rumi, years ago, it was a small, backward town. Now it has a museum dedicated to the poet, as well as a bustling city centre. Other cities have similarly benefited from over a decade of AKP rule, and their citizens showed their gratitude to the man they believe is responsible for Turkey’s economic boom.

If anything, the results of the recent elections reveal the tension between the conservative Muslims and the Westernised elites in Turkish society. For decades, the latter class ruled with the support of the powerful army that saw itself as the upholder of secular, Kemalist values. In all these years, Istanbul and Ankara sophisticates looked down at their Anatolian cousins with their headscarves and conservative ways.

Erdogan’s rule has empowered this class. When I was last in Istanbul a couple of years ago, I was amazed at the number of women with headscarves shopping in expensive shops and eating at exclusive restaurants. Clearly, a sea-change has occurred in Turkey: the Anatolian heartland has achieved power, and is not about to let it slip out of its hands.

Ironically, the real challenge to Erdogan comes not so much from his liberal, urban critics as from his erstwhile ally, Fehtullah Gulen. This highly respected religious figure rules over a huge network of supporters who have apparently infiltrated every organ of the state. The recent embarrassing leaks that have gone viral on the social media could only have come from well-placed agents who have recorded damaging conversations. Gulen’s influence in Turkey should not be underestimated. His organisation has a major presence in universities, apart from being well represented in the bureaucracy. He has pushed an enlightened vision of Islam where science and modernity are essential components. His pre-university coaching schools helped students prepare for entrance exams, and were a major source of revenue. When Erdogan shut them down, he triggered a bitter war with Gulen. How it will end remains to be seen.

In the aftermath of his resounding win, Erdogan sounded a warning to his rival, threatening to make him pay a price, and without naming him, saying that he would follow Gulen into his lair. One secretly recorded conversation that was particularly damaging was apparently between top diplomats, army officers and officials from security agencies in which they discussed the possibility of staging an incident that would provide an excuse for Turkish intervention in Syria.

Critics charged that this exercise would divert public opinion from the corruption charges that are doing the rounds. While Erdogan’s anger over this steady drip-drip-drip of leaks is understandable, his ban of Facebook and Twitter makes him seem like an enraged autocrat lashing out at all those who cross him. Clearly, as his power has grown, so has his propensity to see himself as an Ottoman sultan whose actions cannot be questioned or criticised. However, his most recent political triumph might well encourage him to seek the presidency in August. This will be the first election to directly elect the president, and many fear that he will then be tempted to make this office as powerful as it is in the United States and France.

His ambitions may well be tempered by the widely anticipated slowdown of the economy. Although Turkey has weathered the storm in financial markets that hammered many Western economies, higher interest rates on foreign loans, and the exit of huge amounts of external investments in the capital markets are predicted to cause a significant slowdown. This will cause unemployment to soar, and the interest rates on personal loans to rise. Before this happens, Erdogan might well call for snap parliamentary polls before the presidential elections. But whatever happens, he does not plan to gracefully fade away anytime soon.
By Irfan Husain,

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