13 June 2013
Intentionally Pouring Fuel Over Fire
Since a small sit-in in Istanbul turned into mass protests throughout Turkey two weeks ago, many commentators have criticized Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric against the demonstrators. But unlike what observers think, the Turkish prime minister is not increasing tensions – calling the protestors “looters” and organizing flash rallies where he threatens to unleash his supporters – because he is desperate or because he is blinded by rage or because he has lost touch with reality. Although Mr. Erdoğan seems like he’s unwittingly pouring fuel over fire, everything he does is meant to serve a political objective.
That objective is Çankaya, the district in the capital Ankara where Turkish presidents reside. The term of the current president, Abdullah Gül, ends next year. It is no secret that Mr. Erdoğan wants to expand the powers of the presidency and succeed Mr. Gül as president.
But how does Mr. Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric serve his aspirations? Although the prime minister has been saying offensive things for a long time, it was around 2007-2008 that he began to use a more divisive discourse. In April 2007, the Turkish military, unwilling to see Mr. Gül become president because his wife wears the Islamic headscarf, issued a memorandum on its website threatening to overthrow the Erdoğan government (Mr. Gül was foreign minister at the time). Had the military succeeded, it would have been the fifth coup in republican Turkey. The episode coincided with the “republican rallies” (Cumhuriyet mitingleri) against Mr. Gül’s candidacy. Then, the country’s secular establishment fought another battle against Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) by threatening to close down the party at the Constitutional Court.
In this context, Prime Minister Erdoğan learned a simple lesson: he would not be able to appeal to diverse segments of Turkish society anymore. As a result, he came to rely on more conservative social groups who shared his worldview. In other words, Mr. Erdoğan began to pursue his agenda not through pluralism but through establishing majorities with those conservatives who would not otherwise vote for an AKP with a diverse social base. That’s precisely why the prime minister is still making assertions about the protestors that are proven to be false: that they “attacked the police” and “drank beer inside a mosque.” These allegations are sure to galvanize not only AKP supporters but also the country’s religious and nationalist majority. The prime minister is aware that popular anger against the protestors would turn into votes for him in next year’s presidential election.
Burning Turkey for Çankaya
Mr. Erdoğan, however, faces a dilemma: his tactic in escalating tensions, which served him quite well until now, could backfire. If the protests, which have remained generally non-violent so far (except for instances of police brutality), get out of control, the prime minister’s chances in the presidential election could be jeopardized. After all, Mr. Erdoğan would not be able to capitalize on his image of “man of order and economic growth” if Turkey experiences large-scale violence.
Here’s why: because the presidential election will be contested in a popular vote for the first time in Turkish history, Mr. Erdoğan’s electoral strategy would be to take more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. A second round, which would pit Mr. Erdoğan against another popular candidate, would be too risky. If the opposition parties CHP and MHP do not nominate an ideological, combative, and divisive candidate but someone who could appeal to broad segments of society (a popular bureaucrat, artist, or even a retired general who does not have the “coup-maker” stain), it is possible that voters could choose such a candidate over Mr. Erdoğan. In that respect, it is also sensible for CHP and MHP to nominate President Gül, who is eligible for reelection and is more widely respected than the prime minister.
At this point, Prime Minister Erdoğan has to ask himself these two questions: is Turkey worth burning for the sake of Çankaya? More important, would a burnt Turkey award him with Çankaya?
Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and is a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.