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The Strongman

Can Turkey’s democracy survive Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

The Esenyurt District of Istanbul is classic new Turkey: pastel-colored office buildings with plastic-looking facades, rows of high-rise apartment buildings organized into little vertical gated communities, skeletons of shopping malls waiting to be filled with Mango and Starbucks. On a recent May afternoon, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made a campaign stop there. The people who gathered to meet him were both covered and loose-haired, lower-middle class and middle class, and they eagerly sandwiched their way through security checkpoints. When the neighborhood square was packed with hundreds of people, supporters of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party—known as the AKP—cued thumping techno music, and the prime minister rode in on a luxury bus bearing license plates that read, “AK 1.”

As the crowd rushed toward him, Erdoğan stood at the helm of the bus, straight-backed and stony-faced; at times, the only things that seem alive in his face are his dark eyes. The prime minister conveys a mob boss’s strength: reassuring with an undercurrent of menace. The party workers scurrying around him were slick and finely dressed, confident and loud, as if they owned the place—which, in a sense, they do.

Eight years ago, Erdoğan came to power as the head of the party of religious underdogs, a devout Muslim in a country whose modern political identity is rooted in secularism. At the time, many feared that he would turn Turkey into an Islamic state: The New York Times gingerly called his election victory “THE ERDOGAN EXPERIMENT.” But, during two terms in office, Erdoğan hasn’t passed any laws that suggest a deeper plot to create a utopian Islamic society. In fact, under his leadership, Turkey has entered a period of unprecedented stability and prosperity. Last year, Turkey grew more than any other major economy apart from China or India; Istanbul and Ankara now resemble tranquil European consumerist metropolises like London or Paris, rather than hotbeds of turmoil like Cairo or Damascus. Observers of the Arab Spring have pointed to Turkey’s “forward democracy,” as Erdoğan calls it, as a hopeful model for the region’s future. Already this year, President Obama has called Erdoğan several times seeking his counsel on the Middle East uprisings.

By now, Erdoğan is more than merely popular. He is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, with all the political genius of a Bill Clinton and none of the personal excess. A regular celebrity guest at elite weddings, he typically arrives in a sea of flashing cameraphones and gives speeches advising the bride to have three kids to save the Turkish race. Even his detractors marvel at his successes, while the true believers often seem convinced that he possesses superhuman powers. Once, speaking to a Turkish man on the street, I commented on the beauty of the tulips that appear in Istanbul every April. Eyes shining, he replied, “Erdoğan did this.”

If the AKP wins the June 12 elections, as is widely expected, Erdoğan will become the most powerful Turkish leader since Kemal Atatürk. He has survived a jail stint, an economic crisis, alleged coup plots, an attempt by the judiciary to shut down the AKP, and, in May, an assassination attempt by Kurdish militants. He has become so unassailable, in short, that Turks are beginning to realize he may never go away.

When the revolutionary military officer Kemal Atatürk liberated Turkey from Western powers in 1923, he had grand ideals for the new republic he had brought into creation. Above all, he was determined that it should be a modern, secular, democratic state: Islam, he avowed, was “a rotting corpse that poisons our lives.” But not all Turks shared his vision. As early as 1950, the rural majority began challenging Ankara’s secular elites; in the 1960s, an anti-imperialist leftist movement challenged Turkey’s ties to the West. The leftists clashed with the Islamic and ultranationalist groups, and the whole country dissolved into bloody street fighting.

In 1980, the secular generals staged a violent coup. The military destroyed most left-wing movements altogether and imposed what amounted to a grand bargain: a “Turkish-Islamic” synthesis that upheld Atatürk’s secular system but allowed for supervised Islam in Turkish schools. At the same time, Turkey’s economy began to open up. The country’s vast population of poor, pious Muslims, long isolated in remote towns, flooded the cities, and Islamic brotherhoods urged their followers to join the modern world. The new atmosphere gave birth to a new breed of politician, as many religious Turks devised ways to be both devout and powerful. Out of that confident generation came Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s pious family migrated from the working-class Black Sea town of Rize to Istanbul. Toughness defined his life. His father, a ferry captain, was so strict he once hung Erdoğan from the ceiling by his arms to punish him for cursing. Erdoğan spent his youth in Kasımpaşa, a blue-collar Istanbul neighborhood near the heart of the city that is synonymous with the kabadayı—a sort of dignified gangster. When Erdoğan does something belligerent or ballsy, people might wink at each other and think, “Kasımpaşa.” (For the winkers, it’s a compliment.) Erdoğan worked hard, selling lemonade on the street and attending a religious high school. Later, he played semiprofessional soccer—not surprisingly, he was a striker—while studying for a degree in business administration. After graduating, he set up a distribution company for the candy and food producer Ülker and became a wealthy man.

In his twenties, Erdoğan joined the explicitly Islamist political party founded by Necmettin Erbakan. (Its name would change over the years from National Order to National Salvation to Welfare to Virtue.) Erbakan was a likeable professor who wore Versace ties, but, by Turkish standards, he was a religious radical—he believed, for example, that female servants should be able to wear veils to work. Yet as important as his Islamist views were the religious social networks that supported them. “The Islamic ideal is to help the poor by yourself,” says journalist Mustafa Akyol, author of the forthcoming book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. “To centralize that and make the state take care of it is a modern idea. [The Welfare Party] had this quasi-official cooperation with the Islamic charities, which they helped to empower. And they could tap into that for votes.”

Erdoğan quickly climbed the Welfare Party’s ranks. More than the dapper Erbakan, he could appeal to the working class: Erdoğan was seen as down-to-earth, a guy you might see in the pide salon. In 1994, at the age of 40, he was elected mayor of Istanbul, on a platform of clean hands, improved quality of life, and a devotion to municipal services. And, like a Turkish Rudy Giuliani, he delivered. Even secularists gratefully recall that it was Erdoğan who got rid of the trash on the street corners, improved the water and the transportation systems, and, yes, planted the flowers. But he also proclaimed himself the “imam of Istanbul” and banned alcohol in municipal buildings. He was incredibly popular, which made him incredibly dangerous to the ruling regime.

In 1997, Erdoğan appeared at a political rally in Siirt, a poor city in southeastern Turkey, and read a poem by Ziya Gökalp, one of Turkey’s founding nationalist intellectuals:

The mosques are our barracks,
the domes our helmets,
the minarets our bayonets
and the believers our soldiers. 

Gökalp is regarded in Turkey as a hero, but Turkey’s secularist generals accused Erdoğan of using the poem as an Islamist rallying cry. He was charged and found guilty of “inciting religious hatred.” “This is not a farewell,” he vowed on his way to a four-month jail stint; a crowd of thousands gathered in a display of solidarity.

Erdogan’s brief time in prison wrought a marked change in his political philosophy. In 2001, he broke from his mentor Erbakan and founded the AKP. The party’s membership was a hodge-podge of observant Muslims whose views ranged from pragmatic to Islamist, but Erdoğan promised that the party would collectively abandon hard-line views. In a deft form of positioning, he also began to speak more approvingly of the West—both as a model for the Turkish economy and also as a beacon of religious liberty. His timing was excellent. In 2001, Turkey’s economy collapsed, discrediting the three political parties in power. Offering a fresh start, the AKP was elected with 34 percent of the vote. Erdoğan announced that his party would be “reliable, democratic, honest” and that it would protect “basic rights and freedoms.”

In his first term, Erdoğan tackled Turkey’s socioeconomic problems with the same gusto with which he had cleaned up Istanbul. Struggling families received packages of food and coal; poor students received scholarships and free books. In 2003, the AKP initiated reforms that eventually led to a universal health care system. Erdoğan continued policies of market liberalization and the economy flourished: Per capita GDP more than doubled between 2002 and 2007.

Erdoğan’s political reforms were even more dramatic. A major focus in his first term was entrance to the European Union (EU), then a popular policy in Turkey. In accordance with the EU’s demands, the AKP passed more than 40 laws to protect freedom of expression, improve the rights of women and children, eliminate torture, and strengthen civilian control of the military. Erdoğan also abolished the death penalty and pledged to solve the conflict with the Kurds, which had torn the country apart for 30 years.

Both religious Turks and many pro-EU liberals were astonished at their “Tayyip’s” ability to bring about real change without sacrificing his personal ideals. “For so long, the secularists imitated the West, and they were ashamed of where they came from,” the Istanbul-based artist Ali Kazma once told me. “Erdoğan doesn’t have any of that shame, and you can tell.” The rest of the world was paying attention, too. In 2004, Time noted approvingly: “Western leaders have been scouring the Muslim world for moderate politicians who see their future in democracy and pluralism. Erdoğan may be the best find yet.”

Erdoğan’s government won reelection in 2007, but his second term was rockier than the first. He pushed for the issue dearest to his constituents’ hearts: the right to wear the headscarf in state institutions. He also continued to dismantle the military’s power. In doing so, he provoked the ire of his old secularist foes, who still dominated the elite ranks of the judiciary. In 2008, Turkey’s top prosecutor charged the AKP with anti-secular activities and called for Erdoğan and the AKP’s top-ranking members to be banned from politics. The secularists had overplayed their hand. Facing worldwide condemnation, the court backed off, and Erdoğan emerged from the incident stronger than before.

Erdoğan typically exudes macho charisma, and so it was rather jarring when he stood at the podium before an AKP meeting last summer and started to cry. Filmed by every major TV station in the country, Erdoğan swallowed hard and fought to control his voice; his eyes shone with tears.

Even more surprising was what Erdoğan was crying about: the executions of leftist and rightist activists during Turkey’s 1980 coup, one of Turkey’s most enduring psychological wounds. Previous governments had avoided making amends for the military’s crimes, but here was Erdoğan, reciting leftist poems and reading letters written by young men before they were executed.

Erdoğan’s tears had a purpose. At the time, he was seeking to rewrite Turkey’s deeply flawed constitution. By appealing to the old left, Erdoğan hoped to build a broad coalition for his chosen reforms. Last September, he held a referendum on a package of 26 amendments. One vote, 26 very different amendments. Many were laws aimed to bring Turkey into compliance with the European Union: special protections for disabled people, the creation of an ombudsman, data protection, plus a proposed amendment to allow the 1980-coup generals to be brought to justice. Most Turks would have gladly voted “yes” to all of the above.

But one amendment was more controversial. It granted the government increased influence over the judiciary by enlarging the Constitutional Court from eleven members to 17, with judges to be appointed by the president (AKP member Abdullah Gül) and Parliament (where the AKP has a substantial majority). Turkey’s courts are troubled institutions, but the AKP’s initiatives smacked of a power grab. Worse, by bunching all of the reforms together, Erdoğan was depriving people of the very democracy he was promising. Voters, explained the legal scholar Can Yeğinsu, “were not given the opportunity to reflect upon, to debate, or to vote on—in any meaningful way, at least—the principal issue that prompted this referendum: the prime minister’s court-packing plan.”

Before the vote, Erdoğan charged that anyone who voted “no” was a “coupsupporter.” One evening during that time, a friend of mine called in agony. He was watching Erdoğan on television and saw displays of grainy videos of tortured leftists and grieving mothers. “I can’t take it!” he said. “OK, fine, I’ll vote ‘yes’ for the referendum! I don’t want to, but what else can we do?” You were either with the AKP or with the military; with Erdoğan, or against him. Standing before a businessman’s organization, Erdoğan demanded, “Vote ‘yes,’ or be eliminated.” On September 12, 2010, Erdoğan’s amendments passed with 58 percent of the vote. “Nobody can stand in the way of Erdoğan now,” one columnist wrote in Hurriyet, a major opposition newspaper.

The judiciary isn’t the only institution that has been transformed by Erdoğan’s rule. The Turkish media has been thoroughly cowed. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey’s press freedoms one hundred thirty-eighth in the world. For decades in Turkey, dissident journalists—mostly Kurds—have been arrested or thrown in jail. Under the AKP, censorship has been imposed on newspapers that oppose Erdoğan, too. As many 60 Turkish journalists are currently in prison, including nine reporters who were arrested in March as part of the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy, a bizarre case against dangerous ultranationalists and enemies of Erdoğan that has dragged on for four years without producing any convictions. In March, the police raided a publishing house and erased an unpublished book that was critical of the state—a new kind of book-burning for our technological times. The government fined Aydın Doğan, publisher of the country’s leading opposition newspapers, millions of dollars. Erdoğan has even sued cartoonists for insulting him—once for a cartoon in which he was depicted as a cat caught in a ball of yarn. All this bullying has led to endemic self-censorship: It’s very common to hear reporters say, “We know this and this and this, but we can’t print it.”

Turkey now seems a long way from the heady changes of Erdoğan’s first term. Contrary to his earlier vow to forge peace between Turks and Kurds, he has said, more recently, that “there is no Kurdish problem,” and Kurds who do not like the current state of affairs are free to “go wherever they please.” Last year, in its annual report on Turkey’s progress toward entrance into the European Union, the European Commission warned of “a significant slowdown in the reform agenda.” But what’s most troubling is just how much power Erdoğan has managed to consolidate in his own hands: the media, judiciary, and business community are under his sway and the political opposition remains feeble. Joshua Walker of the University of Richmond and the German Marshall Fund, told me, “In Turkey, systematically, the opposition and checks and balances have been taken off.” Wiretapping is the norm; government critics dismantle their cell phones before speaking about politics. Recently, I was discussing mundane political issues at a friend’s house, when he abruptly got up and put his BlackBerry in the refrigerator.

Yet Erdoğan has always couched his efforts to amass power in the language of democracy and cast his critics as the enemies of progress. With the help of the liberal left—who share the AKP’s hatred of the military—Erdoğan has succeeded in co-opting the rhetoric of liberalism. In Turkey, a religious Muslim man, always the secularist’s symbol of backwardness, has made the Western-looking secularists themselves seem anti-modern. That is a minor revolution in itself and one of Erdoğan’s most brilliant feats.

As this Month’s national election grew closer, the prime minister’s tactics became more infantile and absurd. In rallies, he took to mentioning that the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is an Alevi—a Muslim sect that has long been oppressed by Turkey’s Sunni majority. Ten members of another opposition party resigned following the online release of sex tapes, prompting many to suspect the AKP and its wiretapping minions. Erdoğan also announced something he calls the “crazy project”: a massive canal to bypass the Bosphorus strait, from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. If reelected, he plans to rewrite the constitution entirely and has called for Turkey to abandon its parliamentary system in favor of a presidential one.

There have been stirrings of dissatisfaction with the direction in which Turkey is headed. In April, Turkish authorities announced plans to filter threatening words, phrases, and websites on the Internet. (YouTube was long prohibited here.) “Don’t Touch My Internet!” became a refrain on Facebook, and, on May 15, thousands of young Turks protested in 30 cities. (One placard showed Prime Minister Erdoğan in the style of the Shepard Fairey drawing of Obama, accompanied by the slogan, “Yes we ban.”) Nevertheless, the elections are assumed to be a foregone conclusion. Secularist businessmen despise Erdoğan but hope he will win, because Erdoğan equals stability. Some leftists disavow his authoritarian ways and yet admire him for outmaneuvering the old elites. Given that his campaign slogan is “2023,” there seems little chance he will quietly fade out of political life anytime soon.

In the end, Erdoğan’s early detractors were right to fear him but wrong about the danger he represented. It turns out that he did not want power in order to create a conservative Muslim state. He simply wanted power. “He has a personality defined by power. This has nothing to do with Islam,” Akyol, the journalist, told me. “Erdoğan is the man of the streets, the underdog, the fighter.” And perhaps that should not be a surprise. In its short modern history, Turkey has always been run by strong leaders who felt the force of history behind them. Atatürk felt empowered by his vision for a new country; the military generals in turn felt empowered by the legacy of Atatürk. If Erdoğan continues on his present course, he will prove to be not a new model of Turkish politician, but a very familiar model indeed.

Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul.This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.