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ON THE BRINK OF CHANGE
- Turks love their heroes, but the jury is still out on Erdogan

Turks love their heroes and there has been no shortage of the latter in that heroic land, or the vast expanse of the old territories of the Turkic peoples. If the 15th-century Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, the victor of Constantinople at the tender age of 21, is a permanent member of the Turkish pantheon of heroes, so is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic in the early 20th century. Their places in Turkish history are secure.

Then there are those who are found today in the hall of fame, but whether that is a durable arrangement is not quite clear. One in this category is Bulent Ecevit, a five-time prime minister, a leader of sparkling personal and intellectual qualities, but with a somewhat mediocre political record. What catapulted him to the status of a hero was his ordering Turkish troops into Cyprus 40 years ago when faced with the prospect of the island’s forced union with Greece through a coup d’etat. This one act divided Cyprus on ethnic lines, Greek and Turkish, and bestowed a separate political identity on the Turkish Cypriots. The invasion was universally condemned, but the Turks took great pride in their prime minister’s muscular venture, and called Ecevit the “Conqueror of Cyprus”, reminiscent of Sultan Mehmet’s feat and sobriquet five centuries earlier.

Then we come to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the incumbent prime minister, who is the current holder of the title. Erdogan, 60, became Turkey’s prime minister 11 years ago, and has ruled with an iron hand and an increasingly erratic style ever since, reducing all political opponents in the manner of the great Ataturk to total irrelevance. Local and international commentators have called Erdogan the new Ataturk, and speculated whether he, with his conservative-Islamist ideology, would over time create a new kind of Turkey, and supplant Ataturk, who had used a different ideology of authoritarian secularism that had made Turkey a very different kind of Muslim country.

Erdogan, and his possible place in the Turkish pantheon of heroes, are actively discussed these days because the prime minister, barred by his own party’s charter to hold that office for a fourth term, is eyeing a new trophy: Turkey’s presidency, the first-ever direct elections to which are to be held on August 10 and for which he is his party’s candidate. Given the man’s electric energy and ambition, and what appears to be genuine popularity with large sections of the population, and the fact that the opposition may have given him a walk-over by putting up a nondescript challenger, a victory for Erdogan looks like a foregone conclusion. The current president, Abdullah Gul, an erudite and affable person and a co-founder along with Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party, could have sought re-election but chose not to. Gul’s public pronouncements in recent times have indicated a falling out with his erstwhile colleague; he must have weighed his chances and found them not good enough to stop Erdogan’s relentless march to supreme power.

And supreme power it would be if Erdogan has his way with his ultimate goal: changing Turkey’s current, largely ceremonial, presidency to an executive presidency. This, he has declared, he would seek to achieve by asking his party to work on a new constitution after the parliamentary polls next year. (Currently, without the opposition’s backing, a constitutional change in favour of the presidential system is not possible.) Defying anti-incumbency, the Justice and Development Party would probably return to power with a majority. The only question is, would the numbers be big enough to deliver Erdogan’s executive presidency?

A distinct downward trend marks the quality of Erdogan’s prime ministerial rule. He started well by enthusiastically embracing Turkey’s dream of membership in the European Union, and as part of the drill, proceeded to clip the wings of the mighty military, authors of four past coups. This was hailed as democratization. He presided over unprecedented economic prosperity. His government declared a policy of zero problems with neighbours that came as a breath of fresh air in a restive region, and the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was suddenly the toast of diplomatic salons. When the misnamed ‘Arab Spring’ occurred, the ‘Turkish model’ — that combined religion, secularism, democracy and economic success in a heady mix — was much in vogue. He tried to effect reconciliation with the Kurdish minority in the knowledge that even partial success here would heal a festering sore that has troubled Turkey for decades and make him a statesman the like of whom the country had not seen in a long while.

These were bold actions, typical of the man, and in taking many of the political risks, he was mentored and aided by a shadowy self-exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who, through his Hizmet network of schools, banks, insurance funds and media outlets, had built up over the years an enormous influence in the higher echelons of the Turkish State.

But when things started to unravel for the prime minister later in his rule, rank opportunism and calculation to further his own career were seen to be behind many of his actions. It came to light that hundreds of high ranking military officers were sent to jail for long terms on trumped up conspiracy charges so that a coup threat did not cloud Erdogan’s horizons. In a shocking development, prosecutors launched investigations into charges of massive corruption by Erdogan’s ministers and family members. Many of his imperious decisions were greeted with raucous street demonstrations all over the country. In response, a cornered and angry Erdogan set new standards of high-handedness. He turned brash and irrational in dealing with the neighbours too, losing the mantle of the honest broker; his personal preference gave rise to a distinct pro-Sunni line in Turkey’s foreign policy that prompted even the government appointed religious head to caution that Turkey was forfeiting the role of an arbitrator by taking sides. His moralistic rants became a subject of ridicule and mirth. Samples: abortion is murder. C-sections are unnatural. Every woman should have three children.

Erdogan suspects his old ally and now opponent, Gulen, of stoking his troubles. In the biggest challenge to his political career, he has declared war against Gulen, charging him with running a ‘parallel state’ through well-placed adherents in the government. A nation-wide witch-hunt against judges, prosecutors, police officers, media — ‘Gulen’s men’ — continues in an atmosphere of charged paranoia.

These are disturbing trends for Turkey and its people. Erdogan, derisively called Turkey’s Putin, is unlikely to change. An executive presidency for him may, therefore, herald the beginning of a Turkey of far greater religious conservatism and intolerance at home and abroad, mirroring the leader’s paternal and autocratic style. This would exacerbate tensions and further polarize the already divided Turkish society. In a newspaper interview recently, President Gul rued: “We are alienated from the party we founded. Only one person’s projects have started to be realized, instead of those of all of us.” At the other end of the spectrum, a personal friend from Istanbul reported: “Turkey is now a one man show, all set for Erdogan’s values and decisions, which is tried to be passed off as a natural consequence of democracy. We feel humiliated.”

Only time can unfold the exact nature of Erdogan’s executive presidency, should that come to pass. But the party faithful, eager for another outsized hero, are back with the debate: would history crown Erdogan the new Ataturk? Somehow, to me, a fascinated admirer of Turkey’s iconic Ataturk, the possibility seems remote. I can think of three differences: in the times and circumstances of the two leaders; in popular response to their actions; and in the nature of their missions — re-building a broken homeland for one, personal empowerment for the other.