Erdoğan, from Rags to Rebellions
Juliana DeVries 30 June 2011

The international press has showered Turkey with attention in recent months, and with reason: Turkey’s economy is growing at a time of global recession, Ankara increasingly influences key international affairs issues, and the protests in nearby Arab countries spur talk of the “Turkish Model” from the media as well as the demonstrators themselves. The most astute of these enthusiasts simultaneously caution of Turkey’s imperfections—its ethnic violence, its often-stifled press, its outdated constitution, its complex battles over secularism, and so on. The man behind this narrative is Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reelected on June 12th for a third term in office. The recent elections have brought our attention back to Turkey once again and warrant assessment of Erdoğan-the-man, as well as the most pressing issues he faces in his next term in office.

For many Turks, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a man of the people; born in 1954, he spent his early childhood near the Black Sea coast, moving to Istanbul at 13, where he sold sesame buns on the streets and played semi-professional soccer. He went on to become the mayor of Istanbul in 1994 in a rags-to-riches tale of hard work and charisma. He joined the Islamist Welfare Party during the height of the Turkish Islamist movement in the 1990s but landed himself in jail in 1998 for incitement to religious violence, after reading a poem at a party rally with the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”

Despite his activist past, Erdoğan has always been a pragmatic leader. He tackled infrastructure issues as mayor of Istanbul, and after the Constitutional Court closed the Islamist parties and Erdoğan served his four-month prison term, he attempted to transition his political identity from Islamist-pragmatist to pious-pragmatist. Since founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdoğan has faced endless media coverage debating his political Islamist intentions or lack there of, but now, as a well-established leader of a rising country in a key region, Erdoğan’s challenges extend far beyond this discussion.

Although seldom discussed in the international press, Turkey is actually undergoing a civil war of sorts as the Turkish army continues to combat the Kurdish uprisings, led by the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)–a conflict that has taken over 40,000 lives. The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Association (TESEV), an independent non-governmental Turkish think-tank, recently released a comprehensive study on ending the conflict called, “Down the Mountain — How Can the PKK be Disarmed? The Kurdish Question Freed from Violence.” In this study, TESEV outlines a comprehensive list of actions both sides must take to end the violence. TESEV’s recommendations include developing mutual trust through a disarmament, releasing or at least bettering treatment for jailed Kurdish leaders, especially PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, and giving amnesty for retired members of the PKK. (Initial analysis of the report concluded that improving conditions for Öcalan would spur significant change, speculating that the PKK would listen to Öcalan. However, Öcalan called for a cease-fire on Monday, and the rebels are so far refusing to listen.) TESEV also recommends various major changes to Turkish law to give more rights and freedoms to citizens of Kurdish origin, including lowering the 10% threshold for parliamentary representation, subordinating military to civilian courts (a move already underway with the September constitutional reforms), and re-defining citizenship in the new Turkish Constitution.

This re-definition of citizenship is particularly notable, as it is likely to become a key issue during the debates over the new Turkish constitution, projected to begin in the fall. The current constitution is a reformed version of a document written by the military after the 1980s coup; it defines citizenship with ethnic and religious language—a choice made by the military leaders in order to encourage Turkish unity in a time of extreme ethnic violence. Questions such as whether to use the word Türk (meaning “Turk”) or Türkiyeli (meaning “Turkish” or “of Turkey”) will have implications for minority ethnicities such as Kurds and involve theoretical questions, such as whether Turkey will handle minority rights on a group or an individual level.

Writing a new constitution has been one of Erdoğan’s major aspirations, one that now seems closer than ever. Erdoğan did not gain a large enough majority in parliament to enable him to unilaterally write a new constitution, and his desired restructuring of Turkey into a presidential, rather than parliamentary, system will likely not happen. However, opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, unlike his predecessor Deniz Baykal, has expressed agreement with Erdoğan that a new constitution is needed.

But establishing the consensus necessary for an efficient and effective coalition government is already proving difficult for Erdoğan. On Tuesday, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) boycotted the swearing-in ceremony in Parliament after the Supreme Election Board (YSK) refused to approve BDP-backed candidate Hatip Dicle, who is currently imprisoned pending trial on a terrorism-related charge. Erdoğan lamented the BDP’s choice to run risky candidates, although some argue this issue is the fault of the structure of the YSK, which initially approved Dicle to run in the election. Whether the BDP MPs choose to return to parliament and try to alter the structure of the YSK through law, or whether they continue to assert their anger through protest, will be an important indicator of the functionality of the Turkish government and the pro-Kurdish party’s intentions for the future.

Erdoğan also currently faces undesirable regional instability. Desirable relations would have been “zero problems with neighbours,” a paradigm begun by Atatürk and re-asserted by Erdoğan before the Arab Spring forced him to take sides on sticky issues, such as Syria’s violent crackdown on protestors and the subsequent flood of Syrian refugees into Turkey.

Erdoğan also has to continue to make tough choices in regard to historical ally Israel. It was politically advantageous for Erdoğan to publicly denounce Israel after the 2010 flotilla incident, but, the Arab Spring (as well as, perhaps, realizations as to the hypocrisy of Turkey recognizing the PKK but not Hamas as a terrorist group) have moved Ankara to repair the relationship. Erdoğan has begun secret negotiations to normalize relations with Israel and has even asked Turkish citizens not to participate in the next Gaza flotilla, a move that prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to send a letter of congratulations to Erdoğan for the results of the election.

Through moves such as these, as well as Erdoğan’s post-election let’s-work-together speech and his move to drop the many lawsuits he had pending against those he claimed insulted his honor, it seems Erdoğan has realized that he must actually become the regional and domestic “bridge-builder” Time magazine and others have hailed him as—that is, if Turkey is to continue its success, as well as become a place where peace, democracy, and full rights exist for all people. Only time will tell if Erdoğan is up to the task.