Erdoğan is Fighting the Last War

Joost Lagendijk
June 18, 2013

With so many people standing still these days, we might as well spend some time to reflect on the reasons why the ruling party and especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are so manifestly on the wrong track in their assessment of the Gezi Park protests.

It makes sense, of course, to compare Erdoğan with other leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, who, after having been in power for a long time, lost the capacity to “read” their societies in a proper way. It is equally true that the same qualities (stubbornness, unyielding commitment) that helped the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader push through major reforms in the past (like reducing the political role of the military) are now working against him.

The thing that struck me most, however, in Erdoğan's speeches over the weekend was the impression that when the prime minister is talking about Gezi Park and the thousands of demonstrators all over Turkey, he is “fighting the last war.” Generals are notorious for their tendency to use the strategies and tactics of the past to achieve victory in the present. According to me, that is exactly what Erdoğan is doing now: sticking to old and, one must admit, often successful game plans and grand designs, not recognizing that conditions have changed.

Erdoğan's rise to power is inextricably connected with changes in Turkey's society and economy in the 1980s and 1990s that challenged the old power structures and created new spaces for conservative businessmen, media and politicians. The self-made man from Kasımpaşa is the most successful among a new generation of pious Muslims who went into politics, especially after he realized that, in order to reach his goals, he had to moderate his policies and rhetoric. Still, since he became Istanbul mayor in the 1990s, his battle has been with the old elite and their representatives in politics and society, knowing that he could count on the support of the downtrodden and marginalized plus the growing middle classes and new business elites who shared his social conservatism and economic liberalism. His sympathies have always been with like-minded companies that rose with him and not with the old and established ones like the Koç family.

That struggle has made him the most successful politician since Atatürk and brought Turkey a lot of gains that are often overlooked these days. The country has become more prosperous since the AKP came to power, nobody even considers calling the army to intervene and we have never been closer to a solution for the Kurdish problem. But, apparently, at the back of Erdoğan's mind there was always the fear that, one day, the old elites will try to strike back at him and his party because, deep down, they can't stand being ruled by a so-called Black Turk that does not respect their views or lifestyles.

Listening to Erdoğan, I think it is obvious that he is convinced the people who went out on the streets to protest him are being manipulated by the same old forces he has been fighting his whole political life. In his perception of reality, they want to undermine and eventually destroy the new Turkey he has been building. As is every Turkish citizen, he is also prone to believe that his old foes in Turkey are being assisted by their traditional allies abroad and in the international media.

What we end up with is a mix of worn-out conspiracy theories and a political vision based on the fights of the past.

It is tragic to see the man who contributed considerably to Turkey's journey towards a mature democracy is now stumbling somewhere halfway through because he is unable to understand that, as a result of his own policies, Turkey has changed. There is a new generation out there that has profited from the economic boom of the past 10 years. Like it or not, they take that for granted.

What they want now is more freedom, more democracy and less paternalism. Their demands have hit a chord with many Turks who have felt overpowered by the AKP leader for a long time.

In order to understand all this, Erdoğan needs to change his mental framework that served him well in the past but is not suited for the present and the future.


Originally published on Today's Zaman.

Photo by cvrcak1.


PN member Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a Columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.

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