What Kind of Leader Does Turkey Want?

By Sara Westfall
posted on July 4, 2013 in Leadership, Politics and Society

Since protests erupted last month in Turkey, there has been one major question: are the Turkish people outgrowing Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan? Demonstrations that began as a protest of the commercial redevelopment of a park in Istanbul became a protest of Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarian policies, engulfing several major Turkish cities. While Istanbul has quieted, the protests have intensified in the country’s capital, Ankara. The Interior Ministry reports that 2.5 million people have taken part in the protests so far, with thousands of protester and police injuries and currently only a few fatalities.  

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has won the past three general elections, each time increasing its share of the popular vote, with almost 50% in the last election. Since coming to power, Erdoğan has reinvigorated the Turkish economy, arrested high inflation rates, made progress towards EU ascension, and is working on making peace with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). So what happened? Erdoğan’s time as prime minister is starting to resemble another prominent world leader: Russia’s strong man, Vladimir Putin. The resemblance is striking. Both leaders came to power during a recession and helped modernize their economies and attract foreign investment.

They also brought down traditional centers of power in their countries. Putin turned on the powerful oligarchs who helped him get elected. Similarly, Erdoğan diminished the power of the military which, since the end of the Ottoman Empire, had periodically overthrown governments that deviated too far from the republic’s secular foundation. After defeating their opponents, both leaders expanded their power in an increasingly authoritarian way. Erdoğan has asserted his party’s political Islamist views and introduced a number of Islamic laws into the secular country including stricter laws on the sale and consumption of alcohol, one of the complaints of the protesters. Both Erdoğan and Putin have tightened controls on the media and free speech has been restricted. Turkey’s rankings in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index have been slipping in the past several years due to an unprecedented rise in the arrests of journalists. Furthermore, Erdoğan is planning on switching positions with the president after the next elections – something that Putin himself has done twice.

In response to the protests, Erdoğan has relied upon an age-old tactic of authoritarian leaders, including Putin, of blaming foreign actors and extremists. Both leaders still seem to value the democratic process, but as Erdoğan himself has suggested, they view their victories at the polls as a mandate to carry out their policies however they wish.

The protests indicate that the Turkish people have started to push back against Erdoğan’s growing powers and still value their secular society. However, it is important to note that the protests have primarily occurred in areas where the AK Party isn’t strong. Additionally, these protests are not on the same scale as the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak and many commenters have warned against drawing that comparison. If important bases of AK Party support join the protests, such as religious conservatives and labor groups, then Erdoğan’s regime may be in trouble. Local elections in October will be an important indicator of Erdoğan and the AK Party’s popularity. While his rule might not be in jeopardy yet, the protests have shown that there is a limit to what the Turkish people will accept.