Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan capped off a very eventful weekend with a visit to the Sunday closing ceremonies of the Turkish Olympiad, an annual event that brings together students from the Gulen movement’s global network of schools to show off their language skills through song and dance (if you’ve ever wanted to see African children belt it out in Turkish while dressed up like Turkic nomads, this is the event for you).
But the day’s real show of linguistic prowess was on display earlier, when Erdogan gave a two-hour speech – most of it without even looking at any notes – in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters at an Istanbul rally. It was a bravura performance, one that, incredibly, saw Erdogan’s voice actually lose the hoarseness that he started off with and get stronger as he went along. By the end, Erdogan had once again shown that there is really no one in the Turkish political landscape that can touch him in terms of working up a crowd and projecting his personality so forcefully and effectively.
One of the difficulties of writing about Turkey for a foreign audience is figuring out a way to explain the country’s inherent political weirdness. Try succinctly describing the role of the powerful Islamic Gulen movement, which has no official leadership inside Turkey and whose spiritual leader actually lives in the Poconos, or easily illuminating the Baroque ins-and-outs of Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and other intriguingly-named coup plot cases working their way through the Turkish courts.
This was the challenge facing Washington, DC-based Turkey analyst Omer Taspinar when he made an appearance on the Colbert Report the other night. As Taspinar was trying to describe to his host why the Prime Minister of a country of 72 million would be involved in deciding where a mall would be built in Istanbul – something most Turks have by now come to take for granted – Colbert interrupted him. “That would be like Barack Obama saying, ‘We need a left turn lane past the Arby’s on Maple Street. Why is he micromanaging like this?’” Colbert said, as the audience laughed loudly.
The unhinged part of Turkish politics, something that up to now was really only consumed domestically, had suddenly gone global. For the image-makers at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and PM Erdogan, Turkey’s debut on the Colbert Report should be seen as a very dangerous moment. Previously, the fact that some of the most disturbing things about what was going on in the country were also some of the most difficult to explain abroad worked to the government’s advantage, allowing it to mostly control the narrative about the “new Turkey” that was emerging, one free of the ills of the past.
With Tuesday's violent police operation to clear out the protestors from Taksim Square, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have temporarily won the battle to control that patch of downtown Istanbul, but its actions came with a high price, inflicting heavy damage on its international standing and setting the stage for what is likely to be prolonged conflict, something that will only further harm the country.
One only needed to take a look at CNN and its hours of live coverage devoted to the police takeover of Taksim and the ensuing protests to realize that a new narrative was being developed about Turkey. Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have spent the last ten years cultivating an international image for Turkey of a tourist- and international finance-friendly democracy on the rise, but the images that were being shown on international television screens told a very different story.
In that sense, today's events helped speed up what was becoming a problematic dynamic for Erdogan and his government over the past 11 days of ongoing protests in Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities, in that the kind of questions about the PM's increasingly autocratic rule that were previously only asked domestically were now starting to be discussed more regularly internationally.
In late 2011, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan underwent surprise surgery on his digestive tract and rumors were swirling that the leader was sick with cancer and didn't have long to live, even Erdogan's most vocal critics seemed to have a hard time imagining a Turkey without the mercurial Erdogan running it. The shoes were simply to big to fill, the political space he took up almost impossible to occupy.
Cut to today and it seems that in the wake of the recent protests in Istanbul and other cities, even some the PM's supporters are already contemplating a post-Erdogan Turkey. Sure, Erdogan still has a solid base of support and can still rally his troops and deliver one of his classic barnstorming speeches to get them fired up, as he did at Istanbul's Ataturk airport upon his return to Turkey earlier today from a trip to North Africa, but it's hard not to get the sense that there's something diminished about him. As commentator Mustafa Akyol put it, the recent turmoil in Turkey may signal that we may be looking at Erdogan’s "'solstice' — a turning point marking the shift from a steady rise to a gradual decline."
Yesterday was World Environment Day, a tricky occasion for the Turkish government, considering its brutal bulldozing of trees in the heart of Istanbul was the spark that led to the recent mass protests there and to what now might be a long-term "occupation" of the city's Taksim Square.
Tapped to give an official address to mark the day was Erdogan Bayraktar, the minister responsible for environmental issues. The environment was "number one" on the global agenda, the state-run Anatolian Agency reported the minister as saying. “The ability of ecological systems to renew themselves is severely limited and deteriorating every day,” Bayraktar further said. “Environmental issues have become topics that countries of diverse cultures and geographical characteristics have all agreed or have had to agree on.”
The ferocity and longevity of the recent protests in Istanbul may have come as a surprise to both the Turkish government and outside observers, but that these events centered around the city's Taksim Square should not be surprising. The fact of the matter is that the square has been a contested space for decades, the site of frequent violent protests and the place various groups and governments have tried to put their stamp on Turkish society and identity.
Taksim, most famously, is where unknown gunmen opened fire in 1977 on labor activists celebrating the May 1 holiday, leading to widespread panic and the death of dozens. Since then, Turkish officials have kept the square mostly off limits to May 1 events, resulting in annual protests and violent clashes between police and demonstrators trying to make their way to the square to commemorate the 1977 event.
In a fascinating interview the other day with Hurriyet Daily News, Korhan Gumus, one of Turkey's leading architects and urban planners, provides some of the background on Taksim's political and cultural significance:
Love Recep Tayyip Erdogan or loath him (there really is no middle ground when it comes to the Turkish leader), it cannot be denied that the Prime Minister is one of the towering figures of modern Turkish political history. The changes he has brought forward in Turkey are monumental and the series of victories he has led his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to at the ballot box are uniformly impressive.
One of the reasons Erdogan has been so successful is that he has always possessed keen political instincts (coupled with a good dose of luck) and the ability to get a very good read on Turkish public sentiment. This allowed him to move his agenda ahead by frequently utilizing the politics of polarization, taking steps that would anger an ever-diminishing minority whose ineffectual response would nonetheless further mobilize Erdogan's broader base of support. It's a pattern that had repeated itself over and over again over the last decade.
Which is what makes the mass protests in Istanbul and across Turkey over the last few days all the more surprising and significant. For the first time, Erdogan's politics of polarization have not only stopped working but have blown up disastrously in his face. Could Erdogan, that master taker of the Turkish nation's pulse, be losing his touch?
Today marks the third anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, an Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza that resulted in the death of nine Turks and in the shattering of the once-close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
In March, Turkey and Israel -- with American help -- started what looks like will be a drawn-out reconciliation process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for "operational mistakes" made during the incident that resulted in the loss of life, meeting one of the three conditions set forth by Ankara for diplomatic relations to be restored. The two countries are now working on the second condition, compensation for the victims, which is where they seem to be getting stuck. As Ha'aretz recently reported, Israel is offering to pay $100,000 to each victim's family, while Turkey is demanding $1 million (Turkish officials have denied the Israeli report).
Things will likely get more complicated in terms of the third condition, which, as set forth by Erdogan, is Israel's lifting of its blockade on Gaza. During his recent visit to Washington, the Turkish leader again stated that relations with Israel could only be restarted once this condition has been met. So far, there has no been any indication from either side about how they plan to deal with this complicating issue beyond some vague statements made by Turkish officials about Israel taking "positive" steps to improve conditions in Gaza.
In his EurasiaNet article today, my colleague Dorian Jones argues convincingly that while Turkey has enjoyed enviable economic success over the last decade, this success has also been accompanied by an alarming growth in economic inequality and a severe limiting of workers' rights.
An interesting companion to Jones's piece is a recently-released survey conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a body that brings together some of the world's wealthier countries, including Turkey. Taking a look at various quality-of-life indicators in 36 countries, the survey found Turkey near the bottom of the heap in most cases. Reports the Wall Street Journal:
The list, which ranks member countries on 11 factors including income, safety, life satisfaction and health, appears to show Turks are downright miserable in comparison with their OECD peers. Just 68% of people said they have more positive experiences in an average day than negative ones, much lower than the average of 80%.
Analysts say a lack of education, unemployment, poverty and rapid migration are the main drivers of Turks’ dissatisfaction.
In a recent blog post, I suggested Turkey is turning into a "constructocracy," with an economy driven by the construction sector and ruled by a government that never met a large infrastructure or building project it didn't like, no matter how destructive to the environment or unnecessary it was.
The construction continues apace, with today's groundbreaking ceremony for a new $3 billion bridge across the Bosphorus, which separates Europe and Asia. Hurriyet Daily News provides some background on the bridge, which will be the third span to cross the body of water and which will be the world's widest when completed:
The construction of Istanbul’s third bridge on the Bosporus was tendered for last year as part of the north Marmara motorway project’s Odayeri-Paşaköy section. The tender was then awarded to a consortium consisting of the Turkish IC İçtaş and the Italian Astaldi that submitted the bid with the shortest term of construction and operation, 10 years two months and 20 days.
The bridge is to be constructed under a build-operate-transfer model, in which private companies build the bridge and will have the right to collect tolls from vehicles using the bridge for a period of time before handing the bridge over to the state.
The consortium is expected to complete the construction of the bridge in 36 months, at a total cost of about $4.5 billion, after the contract is signed. “The bridge should be ready for use by the end of 2015,” Turkish Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım had said earlier.