Yet on the occasion of the Turkish Republic Day on October 29, the tensions that had been brewing elsewhere in Istanbul and in other Turkish cities (including the capital, Ankara), resurfaced close to Taksim.
In this climate, the honeymoon between the Turkish government and the international press, which once praised the Turkish model as one to be emulated in the Middle East, seems to have ended in divorce. Criticizing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has now become a favorite sport of Western and Middle Eastern commentators. From his and his foreign minister’s miscalculations on the war in Syria to the handling of the economy and his support for former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, there are very few issues left untouched by this flurry of criticism.
Very recently, an op-ed by prominent Washington Post columnist David Ignatius claimed that Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, “disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.” This was yet another negative message directed at both an important figure from the ruling establishment and its foreign policy orientation.
Much of this criticism comes across as inflated. It ignores the unparalleled levels of turmoil engulfing the Middle East and the difficulty of making decisions when there is always something to lose. One needs only to look at the status of US diplomacy in the region to understand there are no easy options available to anyone.
Erdoğan’s legacy is significant enough to place him second in importance after Atatürk, the “Father Turk,” in Turkey’s modern history. The current prime minister has consolidated the foundations of democracy and successfully shattered the spectrum of military intervention in the country’s politics, a fear that loomed for decades under the banner of the defense of Atatürk’s secular state.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to tame chronic inflation, which exceeded 90 percent in the early 1990s. Inevitably, the very slow recovery of the global economy has had an impact in the performance of the Turkish economy.
The tangible progress in the peace process with the Kurds—a national wound that dates back to the formation of the Turkish state—is also of Erdoğan’s making, even if it is unlikely that the Kurdish problem will be settled during his current mandate.
He has also pushed ahead important reforms with an eye on EU membership. Confronted with the reluctance of some EU members—former president Nicholas Sarkozy of France famously repeated in disapproval that “Turkey is in Asia Minor”—Turkey has explored other alliances that allow it to keep its options open.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps all these successes that have led Erdoğan and his close circle down a path described by many as power hubris, one that may well prove counterproductive for both Turkish democracy and the AKP.
Many in Turkey are increasingly worried about Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and disregard for the notion of consensus building, a basic, but crucial, principle of the democratic system he helped to consolidate. The prime minister and his party are still hugely popular. But important segments of Turkish society, including moderate secularists and the urban youth, are deeply suspicious of what they perceive as an agenda to Islamize and shape Turkish society according to tenets they do not share. Take, for example, the restrictions on alcohol sales or on freedom of press and television content.
Erdoğan’s often-confrontational attitude has also raised legitimate concerns. His fierce reaction to the Gezi Park protests, at least partially a popular response to his style of governing, is a case in point. It is interesting to note the words of President Abdullah Gül in early October, when he warned of an increasing polarization in Turkey’s political sphere. “Such polarization obviously has the potential to harm the social cohesion of our people. Therefore, we cannot view every issue and every debate in terms of black or white, right or wrong, justified or unjustified, us and them, or friend or foe,” Gül said during the Parliamentary session that marked the opening of the new legislative year.
Those words have been widely interpreted as a message to Erdoğan from a long-time ally who is considering his options ahead of next year’s presidential elections. (Erdoğan is trying to modify the constitution so that he can become an all-powerful president.) Others, however, see it simply as a softer face of the same AKP line, almost a good cop–bad cop strategy.
Erdoğan’s Islamist tendencies and constant references to the Ottomans’ glorious past could hardly contrast more with Atatürk’s emphasis on secularism and his efforts to abolish the caliphate. Thus, when reading about the Atatürk’s quest to modernize and Westernize Turkish society, it is ironic to notice a parallel with Erdoğan’s increasingly active agenda of social engineering. But Atatürk combined autocratic leanings with an effort to plant the seeds of democratic institutions in a context where the very existence of the recently created Turkish nation-state was still endangered by the covetousness of European colonial powers. Today, there is no such challenge. Erdoğan’s stretching of his mandate is tarnishing his legacy, providing ammunition to his critics, and threatening to undermine much of what Turkey achieved under his leadership.