Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of the Taksim Square protests in Turkey. Demonstrators were originally upset over plans to further urbanise one of Istanbul’s cherished green spaces, but as with other protests that have swept through the Muslim world since 2011, the initial spark soon transformed into a wider referendum on middle-class dissatisfaction with their government.
In Turkey, the ‘government,’ for all intents and purposes, means the strongman Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Rightly credited with bringing a decade of stability and rapidly rising living standards to this gateway country between the West and the rest, Erdogan’s latest antics are making the Istanbul intelligentsia long for meaningful and strictly enforced term limits. While he has pledged to make his third term as prime minister his last — for now — Erdogan is widely expected to stand for Turkey’s first-ever popular elections for the post of president in August 2014. In his apparent desire for political longevity, he is not expected to fade quietly from the spotlight.
However, the Turkish people would be better served if he took a nice, long vacation. Over the past six months, Erdogan’s tenure has been rocked by a series of upheavals that would have felled a lesser politician. In December 2013, corruption allegations were made against several of his inner circle in regards to the awarding of illegal construction permits. January 2014 saw a fistfight break out in Parliament, as MPs from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party sponsored a bill to tighten government control over the judiciary. February 2014 brought the dissemination of wiretapped conversations allegedly featuring the prime minister and his son, regarding the best way to dispose of large amounts of illicit cash. In March 2014, Erdogan instituted a ban on Twitter, supposedly due to the company’s non-compliance with court orders regarding privacy concerns. Turkey’s constitutional court later overturned it, but commentators noted the suspicious timing of the ban, coming a week before important local elections. Since many mainstream media outlets are owned by conglomerates with ties to the ruling party, Twitter is a uniquely independent source of information for Turkish voters.
However, this month may prove the worst yet for Erdogan. First, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a €90 million judgement against Turkey for its invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Erdogan’s Administration has indicated they do not intend to comply with the ruling, although ECHR decisions are binding and there is no appeal, something the Turkish government undoubtedly knows. Nevertheless, the government’s antagonistic response to the ruling was not unexpected, and the received wisdom is that since Turkey is not a member of the European Union and is unlikely to become one any time soon, it is politically expedient for Erdogan to adopt a tough stance.
More challenging by far, though, is the prime minister’s tone deaf response to the Soma mine disaster, in which nearly 300 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning, the worst industrial accident in Turkey’s history. In a poorly orchestrated visit to meet relatives of the victims, Erdogan cavalierly asserted that mining accidents are “ordinary things” that happen in many industries. Later, one of his aides was filmed kicking an unarmed man who was being held on the ground by security forces, and the prime minister had to seek refuge from angry crowds inside a nearby store.
One year on from the Taksim Square protests, Turkey is in flux, and its citizens are growing weary of their belligerent leader. The urban elite has long lamented his grip on power, but the Soma mine disaster may be the tipping point that turns his conservative working-class base against him as well. Erdogan would best serve Turkey by bowing out of politics gracefully, and letting someone with newer, fresher ideas rule instead. However, should he choose to ignore the writing on the wall, recent examples from Egypt, Ukraine and Thailand demonstrate that leaders who are seen as out-of-touch often have a limited shelf life. Change is coming to Turkey, one way or another.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2014.