Erdogan: The strong man now at his weakest

Steven Cook writes: “Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan!” chanted supporters of the Turkish prime minister, as a friend and I made our way through the absolutely mammoth crowd that descended on the Kazlicesme area of Istanbul last Sunday to hear their leader speak. As with Erdogan’s rally in the capital, Ankara, the day before, the people who turned out here, many of whom were decked out in scarves, T-shirts, and masks supporting the prime minister, vastly outnumbered the Gezi Park protesters who have captured global headlines. Young, old, well-to-do, decidedly modest, religious, and secular all declared their devotion to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan. When the prime minister surveyed the 295,000 souls who had come to express their devotion and thundered, “Taksim Square is not Turkey!” it was a vindication of his vision, his economic policies, and the strength of his leadership. Yet the irony was that at Kazlicesme, Erdogan’s demonstration of strength revealed his profound weakness and political vulnerability.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Turkey knows something about the Erdogan mystique. He’s the tough guy from the Kasimpasa neighborhood — literally and figuratively down a steep slope from Taksim Square — who has remade Turkey over the last decade. For the media personalities parachuted into a maelstrom of tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray, Turkey under Erdogan is best described as an economic and political success story, a “model” of a “Muslim democracy and prosperity” for the Arab world. But Erdogan’s reservoir of support is based on a much more tangible set of factors. The fact that he presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world — it was the 16th in the 1990s — is less important than the fact that more people are participating in it than ever before. There are still fabulously wealthy and terribly poor people in Turkey, but the overall gap between the two has narrowed. That is no small accomplishment. In other high-growth countries like Brazil, China, and Russia, for example, that gap has grown.

Consistent with the kind of grassroots work that the AKP’s precursor, the Welfare Party, perfected in the 1980s and 1990s, Erdogan — the guy who used to sell the Turkish version of the bagel, called simit, from a cart on the street — has focused much of his time in office on improving the lives of ordinary Turks. In places where transportation was thin, health care was basic, and government services were non-existent, the prime minister has paved roads, built airports, established “Erdogan-care,” and forced local governments to be responsive to their constituents. As a result, Kasimpasa is not so rough-and-tumble anymore and the people there love him for it. [Continue reading…]

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