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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Erdogan Tightens Grip on Turkey, Putting Nation at Crossroads

 
From The Wall Street Journal:

As mayor of Istanbul in the late 1990s, Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly read a poem that included the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." The Islamist message earned him a few months in jail from Turkey's military-backed secular government.
A few years later, Mr. Erdogan re-emerged in politics as a champion of liberal democracy calling for sweeping institutional reforms and closer ties with Europe, became prime minister and led Turkey through a decade of prosperity and influence.

Now, Mr. Erdogan has tacked back in the other direction, igniting weeks of protests from Turks concerned by what they see as Mr. Erdogan's efforts to consolidate his power and Islamize public life. The shift has raised new questions among many Turkish voters about whether the prime minister is democrat or autocrat. How far Mr. Erdogan pushes his new agenda may determine the durability of Turkey's revival.

The protests were ignited by Mr. Erdogan's development plans for an Istanbul park but quickly spread into a national crisis. Mr. Erdogan on June 15 restored order by sending riot police to storm the park, sending protesters fleeing in a hail of tear gas and water cannons.
 
Consequences are starting to emerge. Germany, Turkey's largest trading partner, this week sought to block the start of new talks about Turkey entering the European Union. The U.S., which has called on Turkey to show restraint, is watching to see if the protests constrain Mr. Erdogan's ability to pressure the Syrian regime that President Barack Obama wants to oust.
How the prime minister navigates the next stage could affect other Muslim countries that have viewed Mr. Erdogan's brand of Islam-infused democracy as a model. Turkey was quick to champion the pro-democracy uprisings that unseated dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011. In Egypt, Turkey offered more than $2 billion to bolster the economy and dispatched leading officials and businesspeople to help President Mohammed Morsi reform the country's secular-dominated institutions.
For Mr. Erdogan himself, the protests could hinder his effort to overhaul the constitution and create a more powerful presidency and broker a peace deal to end a three-decade long Kurdish insurgency. His pugilistic response to the demonstrations alienated secular and moderate allies, but played well with his socially conservative political base, analysts say.
 
The current turmoil in Turkey follows a shift by Mr. Erdogan after his third election victory in 2011. Since then, the prime minister has sought to impose further restrictions on alcohol consumption and abortion and repeatedly called for all women to have at least three children to grow Turkey's population. He has held forth on what citizens should eat at the family dinner table, and intervened to censor sex scenes in prime-time television series. His government has sought to muzzle the press; Turkey now jails more journalists than Iran or China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
 
In Istanbul, he has personally commissioned plans to build a landmark mosque on Taksim Square, the bastion of Turkey's secularists and leftist groups. He has centralized power by taking control of his party list, purging it of more moderate voices and handpicking candidates for parliament who agree with his views, analysts say.
 
The breaking of the power of Turkey's military, which had toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century, was perhaps Erdogan's most striking achievement. Hundreds of officers were jailed after coup trials.
The prime minister's popularity was boosted by a remarkable decade of economic growth that has seen a near tripling of nominal incomes. The average Turk today earns $10,500 a year, up from $3,500 when Mr. Erdogan took power.
 
The masterful period has seen political power increasingly centralized around Mr. Erdogan, who has final word on every issue. He has stifled dissent, using a broad coup investigation designed to subdue the military to purge other enemies, including opposition journalists and Kurdish activists.
Some observers of Mr. Erdogan say that his charisma has been the key to his success, but could also be a roadblock that could frustrate reaching a resolution.
"Erdogan is at his root a pragmatist and not unlike Bill Clinton—he would make you feel like you were the only person in the room," said Jenny White, a professor at Boston University who once shadowed Mr. Erdogan when he was Istanbul mayor. "Erdogan is a product of Turkish culture that is characterized by militant masculinity that can easily turn to violence. It's a loaded gun that can be manipulated and pointed, which makes it dangerous."

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