July 2, 2014 5:46 pm

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Supreme ambition

The Turkish prime minister’s presidential quest will have reverberations for the nation and region
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets members of his ruling AK Party (AKP) as he attends a meeting at party headquarters in Ankara December 25, 2013. Erdogan said his ruling AK Party will not tolerate corruption on Wednesday after three cabinet members resigned over a high-level graft probe. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX16TTA©Reuters

Presidential wave: polls suggest that Recep Tayyip Erdogan could become president after just one round of voting

As he accepted his party’s presidential nomination this week, the applause of 4,000 supporters ringing in his ears, the man who has ruled Turkey for more than a decade embarked on one of the greatest gambles of his career. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not just Turkey’s most dominant political figure; in terms of power and influence he towers over all his modern-day predecessors as the country’s prime minister.

Over the past 12 months this tall, gruff figure has overcome travails that would sink most governments: mass protests, put down with overwhelming police force; a corruption probe; a split with an old Islamic ally.

But for Mr Erdogan, a man of blistering rhetoric and impassioned podium speeches, mere survival in office is not enough.

In setting his sights on trading up from prime minister to president in August – Turkey’s first direct election for head of state – the 60-year-old is shaking up the political system, staking his own future on the result and, quite possibly, changing the course of the country’s history.

“A publicly elected president will come on duty . . . who will use his powers for the nation, not against the nation,” he declared in an acceptance speech that began with a prayer and ended with a recitation of the first chapter of the Koran.

Mr Erdogan said the vote would “mark the end of the era of tutelage”, a reference to the influence of the secularist and military elites who once held sway over the country, and reaffirmed his goal of a new constitution, which would replace Turkey’s military-era charter and boost the president’s powers.

Those who have spent time with him speak of a man confident of a victory that surveys show him on the cusp of obtaining. The prime minister has, after all, won eight national votes in a row: three parliamentary contests, three local elections, and two constitutional referendums, including the 2007 poll that instituted direct elections to the presidency, previously decided by a parliamentary vote.

Mr Erdogan is betting that one more win will help shift Turkey from a parliamentary based system to one based on his own personal authority. His quest to become his nation’s paramount leader will have reverberations not just among the 77m strong Turkish population but in a crisis-ridden Middle East where Turkey, a Nato country, remains a pole of stability and where Mr Erdogan’s experiment in political Islam is closely followed.

“Prime Minister Erdogan was not like the other prime ministers before and he will not be a president like his predecessors either,” says Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Mr Erdogan’s ruling, Islamist-rooted AK party. “When the president is elected by the people, that means it will be a semi-presidential system . . . Because of his charismatic and dominant character it is obvious he will be more visible.”

It is a prospect that alarms Mr Erdogan’s detractors, who increasingly warn of authoritarianism. Presidents have traditionally had a mostly ceremonial role. The question is whether the man who has dominated Turkish life will become even more powerful or whether, in seeking the presidency, he will forfeit day-to-day control of government.

His lieutenants make clear their chief’s ambition to activate powers that even the generals who previously occupied the president’s mansion shrunk from using – such as summoning and chairing cabinet meetings – and allying them to the more customary presidential powers of veto and appointment. They, like him, champion the notion of a “national will” overcoming old obstructions.

Mr Erdogan is a man of indomitable character. He has set out overarching goals: to make Turkey into one of the world’s biggest economies; to raise “a more religious generation”; and to become a regional and world leader. But his recent record of imposing his will, including his battle against Fethullah Gulen, a preacher and former ally Mr Erdogan blames for the corruption investigation, has set off alarms in Turkey and across the world.

This year the prime minister banned Twitter, an act the country’s constitutional court deemed illegal and which the US qualified as “21st-century book burning”. His government has disregarded lower court decisions. His party has passed legislation empowering the Turkish intelligence service and increasing executive power over the judiciary: on one day last month 2,224 judges and prosecutors were shifted to other posts.

“There are 5,500 people or so being prosecuted right now [over last year’s anti-government demonstrations],” adds Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, the campaigning organisation. “If even a reasonable proportion end up getting convicted, we would have more prisoners of conscience in Turkey than we have had anywhere for a long time.”

Mr Erdogan’s assertion of authority also has consequences deep within the economic sphere at a time when growth has fallen from red-hot levels of about 9 per cent in 2010-11 to 4 per cent, partly sustained by in­creased government spending.

Staff have been pruned from bodies such as the finance ministry and the Capital Markets Board, while the central bank has begun cutting interest rates well below inflation after the prime minister launched a campaign against the “interest rate lobby”. The term is an apparent reference to domestic and international financiers Mr Erdogan accuses of plotting against Turkish growth.

“This weakening of institutions does not help the enhancing of Turkey’s economy [even though] Turkey still has a very dynamic private sector which drives the economy,” says Mustafa Koc, chairman of Koc Holding, Turkey’s biggest company. “This trend has to change, all these so-to-speak independent institutions should get [real] independence and operate accordingly.”

The prime minister has also left his mark on foreign policy, now increasingly personalised and characterised by rifts with other leaders, to the dismay of diplomats. Mr Erdogan’s critics ac­cuse him of Sunni sectarianism; his supporters say he is standing up for democracy in countries such as Egypt while the west turns a blind eye.

Against this backdrop, the fight for the presidency is not just a contest between political parties but a decision on what kind of head of state Turkey wants. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the 70-year-old former academic and diplomat the two main opposition parties have nominated for the post, represents the status quo. Mr Erdogan never fails to identify himself with “new Turkey”.

“Ihsanoglu will not be running against Erdogan; he will be running to keep the symbolic presidency,” says Atilla Yesilada at GlobalSource Partners, an Istanbul-based consultancy.

Up until May almost two-thirds of voters preferred a ceremonial president but recent surveys show Mr Erdogan with a solid lead that could translate into a first-round victory.

In Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, the part of the country that could hand Mr Erdogan his long-sought victory, the prime minister – and his use of power – are regarded very differently than in the salons of Ankara and Istanbul.

“Things were very bad here in the past,” says Suleyman, who runs a restaurant beside the ancient city walls of Diyarbakir, referring to the 30-year Kurdish conflict in which 40,000 people died. “After five o’clock you would see no one on the streets. You would get beaten up for no reason, you would get tortured for no reason. Things have changed now and that is why Erdogan is good.”

Kurdish political leaders concur that Mr Erdogan has done more for Kurdish rights than previous governments. Kurdish languages were once banned; now even the town hall has Kurdish signs. Negotiations that began with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK, in 2012 could bear early fruit on August 10 and August 24. Then Turkey’s roughly 15m Kurds could deliver the swing votes the prime minister needs.

“What we want from Erdogan as president is peace,” says Mehmet, a shirt seller, while Senay, who sells necklaces, lists the AK party’s aid to the poor: transfer payments, better healthcare and improved services.

It is a refrain heard throughout the heartlands of Anatolia and in the hinterlands beyond Turkey’s great cities: previous coalition governments did little for ordinary people, marginalised the devout and the Kurds, and failed, at least in the chaotic years of the 1990s, to produce a strong leader such as Mr Erdogan. He often picks up the chorus, depicting himself as the representative of Turkey’s long-oppressed classes and portrays court decisions or police inquiries as political manoeuvring or virtual coup attempts.

Still, some of the prime minister’s backers caution that, if he becomes president, there will be limits to his new role.

“If Mr Erdogan is elected and the AK party rules Turkey and has a majority in parliament, the party can say we will follow everything Mr Erdogan says,” argues Osman Can, a member of the party’s ruling committee. “But a day can come when the new prime minister can say: ‘Thank you, Mr Erdogan, but we are responsible for politics . . . ’And if the government says that, the president has no tool [to prevail].”

Indeed, some analysts argue that Mr Erdogan’s presidential aspirations represent hubristic over-reach. The constitution does not allow for a presidential system, despite his previous efforts to change it. The economy, the mainstay of his electoral success, is regularly cited as one of the world’s most exposed to shifts in capital flows. And with parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, the AK party may soon look beyond him for a new leader who can get out the vote.

Others identify deeper causes of authoritarian trends in Turkey. “This is about more than just Erdogan, but it is the logical consequence of his management of the state,” says a senior foreign diplomat, who highlights the diminishing influence of the EU and Turkey’s traditional emphasis on state rather than individual rights.

But if Mr Erdogan scores a resounding victory in August, it would mark the biggest popular affirmation yet of his style of governance. It could deepen changes that have already transformed Turkey: bringing the once-marginalised Kurds towards the heart of political life, a more personalised foreign policy, and increasing concerns about authoritarianism.

It would also represent Mr Erdogan’s biggest success in becoming the most dominant figure in the history of Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the country in 1923. And though such a victory might prove an uncertain foundation on which to build full control of the government, the prime minister has demonstrated repeatedly that he is rarely daunted by obstacles. The history of Turkey is set to be ever more intertwined with the story of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Chief advisers: An entourage with a keen eye for conspiracies

The entourage around Recep Tayyip Erdogan can seem more like the court of an all-powerful ruler than the heart of a modern government.

He has about 20 “chief advisers”, the most well known of which, Yigit Bulut, has claimed that the prime minister’s enemies have tried to kill him through telekinesis and that Lufthansa, the German airline, was behind last year’s anti-government protests. Mr Erdogan often denounces alleged conspiracies and supposed plots against Turkey and insists, in defiance of economic theory, that high interest rates cause high inflation, rather than vice versa.

Members of his economic team have signalled frustration amid rumours that the prime minister has begun listening more to the likes of Mr Bulut. Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister, lamented that “daily rhetoric” was crowding out “rational discussion”, and emphasised the importance of “damage control” in policy making.

Mr Erdogan’s loyalty to his retinue is striking. He refused to dismiss Yusuf Yerkel, an aide who kicked a protesting miner whom security staff had pinioned to the ground. He appeared in public with former ministers who left government after being caught up in a now-stalled corruption inquiry.

But he depicts his ruling AK party, whose 311 members of parliament unanimously backed him to run for president, as far greater than himself.

The party remains formidably organised, inspired by service and a religious conservative outlook.

“Those who think that the AK party cannot exist without Tayyip Erdogan are those who do not understand the AK party,” the prime minister declared in his acceptance speech

One test of how far the party and the government go beyond his personalised rule may come next month. If he is elected president in the August poll, the party will have to move swiftly to choose a new prime minister and party leader.

Some depict the choice as between an Erdogan loyalist or a heavyweight capable of winning an independent mandate. Others reply that, with Mr Erdogan such a commanding figure, there is little doubt what the outcome will be.

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