Protests Might Not Dislodge Erdoğan But Do Pose Challenge

The Turkish prime minister still enjoys broad support but his electoral coalition is fracturing.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010 (UNAOC)

The sometimes violent demonstrations that swept Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul, in recent days might not reflect the nation’s majority’s discontent with the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but do pose the first serious challenge to the prime minister’s authority which previously seemed incontestable.

Demonstrations that sprang up last week in response to plans to construct a shopping mall in one of the last remaining green spaces in the center of Istanbul morphed into a nationwide protest movement against Erdoğan’s rule which opponents say is increasingly dictatorial.

Erdoğan’s conservative party got almost 50 percent of the votes in the last election but its support comes largely from Sunni Muslims in the countryside. Minorities as well as urban and young voters are wary of its Islamist agenda which has seen the persecution of critical journalists, the sidelining of the army that ruled Turkey thrice in its republican history and the repeal of secular laws in a country that is 96 percent Muslim. Abortion rights have been restricted. Headscarf bans were lifted. And late last month, parliament prohibited the sale of alcohol between ten o’clock at night and six in the morning.

Recent agitations, then, reflect a broader fight over Turkish identity, wrote Tim Arango in The New York Times on Sunday. “The old secular elite, who consider themselves the inheritors of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s secular founder, have chafed under [the] transformations.”

Changes have been profound in Istanbul in particular. Monumental buildings have been torn down to make way for tower blocks while gated communities replaced the ghettos on the outskirts of the city. Erdoğan’s economic policy “has also nurtured a pious capitalist class,” according to Arango, “whose members have moved in large numbers from rural Anatolia to cities like Istanbul, deepening class divisions.”

For many, it has also created a sense of resentment and loss — for longtime residents, urban intellectuals and many members of the underclasses who are being pushed from their homes so that upscale housing complexes and shopping malls can be built.

Ethnic and sectarian tension has further been exacerbated by the civil war in neighboring Syria where Erdoğan’s government supports the largely Sunni uprising against the Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad. Asia Times Online‘s Spengler columnist, David P. Goldman, pointed out on Monday that Turkey’s Alevis, who compromise about a fifth of the population, “have some sympathy for the Assad government because the Turkish Sunnis are so determined to destroy it.”

Turkey’s Kurds, roughly another fifth of the population, similarly “view Arab jihadists who dominate the rebel forces with justifiable fear and distrust.”

Erdoğan’s overtures to the Kurds and their struggle for increased autonomy, if not independence, seem largely political. Absent the support of other opposition parties, he needs the Kurdish nationalists’ backing in parliament to amend the Constitution and expand the powers of the presidency, a position he is believed to covet.

Even if most Turkish Sunnis voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan in the last two elections, only 12 percent of the electorate favors the imposition of Islamic law. The premier’s popularity stems not so much from his attempts at desecularization, rather Turkey’s economic success under his stewardship.

That success seems less so. Turkey’s economy only expanded 2.2 percent last year after average growth rates of 9 percent through 2010 and 2011. Government spending has risen some 20 percent, fueling inflation, now at 7 percent, while personal consumption is falling. The very entrepreneurs who repeatedly backed Erdoğan at the polls, whether they are devotedly Muslim or not, might think twice about whom to vote for in the next election, especially if the secular opposition unites and taps into the popular dissatisfaction that had long shimmered in Turkey but is now openly on display in its streets.

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