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Erdogan's Politics of Polarization

Turkey's prime minister benefits from antagonizing the protesters

AFP/Getty Images

This afternoon, hours after riot police returned to Taksim Square and minutes after cracks of tear gas canisters sent protesters running through Gezi Park, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed his party, the AKP. "What did the protesters expect?" he asked. "That we would kneel down before them?"

It has been 14 days since a small group of protesters first entered Istanbul's Gezi Park to protect it from demolition, and twelve days since that protest grew into the most comprehensive challenge to AKP since it took power ten years ago. Early this morning, Tuesday, the mayor of Istanbul promised that police would not enter Gezi Park, but hours later Turkish television showed black-uniformed police ascending the staircase into the tent city. Around 8 p.m., riot police began showering the packed square with tear gas, sending crowds running down nearby streets. Erdogan, who has been back from North Africa long enough to declare an intolerance for further protests, is scheduled to meet with the Taksim Platform, a group representing the protesters, tomorrow. It's unclear whether that talk will still happen, or if it does, what the protesters and Erdogan have left to talk about.

Based on the events of the past two weeks, Erdogan appears most eager to fight the protesters, not to take demands into consideration. In so doing, he’s made a calculation. As a politician, he’s often brash and sometimes offensive, but he's also successful. What looks like an emotional reaction to chaos and opposition could be—perhaps more disturbingly—savvy political math: A divided Turkey wins elections for the AKP. "When he polarizes society—as he did when he's targeted Alevis or Kurds—along sectarian and ethnic lines, he always comes out stronger because he's with the majority," Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet newspaper, told me. "The real danger is the reduction of a democracy into a system when all that matters are votes."

When Erdogan first ran for office, his hardscrabble, religiously conservative upbringing appealed to a large portion of the Turkish population who felt alienated from the secular government. He alluded to time spent in prison (four months for reciting a poem) the way an American politician cites military service and at the same time exploited his position as an outsider. He proudly dubbed himself a "black Turk," as opposed to the pejorative phrase "white Turk" that’s used to describe the secular elite. He also helped create a middle class that included upwardly mobile, religiously conservative Turks. Although many of his measures appeared to secular Turks to be the early signs of Erdogan's "Islamization" of Turkey, he genuinely buoyed a significant portion of the Turkish population. (He made life easier for religious women by easing restrictions on headscarves.) They rewarded him by voting the tough guy from the Black Sea into office.

But Erdogan's eagerness to defend those like him now amounts to a lack of interest in the rights of everyone else. The square, Erdogan seems to believe, is full of these "white Turks," drinking beer, wearing shoes in mosques, threatening women in hijab (a popular rumor among opponents of the protests), and pledging to return Turkey to the time when people like him were oppressed. Such statements—as typically flamboyant as they are—are also the boilerplate fragments of an out-of-touch politician. The culture war he's engaging in isn't as simple as he expects it to be. Images of police brutality all across the country have offended both religious and secular Turks, and tonight's violence will surely increase that sentiment. Some inherent hypocrisies in Erdogan's behavior could also alienate his supporters.

Take for example Erdogan's time in prison, which will now be weighed against his fervor to imprison journalists, Kurdish activists, military, and, most recently, Gezi Park protesters and the lawyers who would defend them.

Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish reporter for Today's Zaman newspaper, has written about Erdogan supporters—who he calls the "silent majority"—since the protests began. In an email, I asked him whether Erdogan could lose significant support because of his reaction to the protests. "Definitely there are many of his supporters who criticized him for badly managing and handling the crisis," he wrote. "Some of his supporters say he might have scaled down his rhetoric and that his plan to renovate Taksim is not worth the unrest." More worrisome for Erdogan, as he hides behind divisive rhetoric, is that some in his base share the protester's complaints. "Whatever Erdogan preaches fits the lifestyles of his conservative base," Zeynalov wrote to me, "but they believe he is becoming increasingly intrusive into the lives of people."

Today, on television, the violence in Taksim Square looks like a stand-off between protesters armed with stones and molotov cocktails, and police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. It was an incomplete picture, at best. But footage of clouds of tear gas and burning cars stand to further polarize the nation, to show those who aren't in the square—AKP supporters—that the protests are violent. Many protesters I spoke to say that only small numbers of people engaged with the police; some suggested this was the result of bad organization, but most thought they were planted to spark violence and discredit the protests.

But worse might be better for the prime minister. With violence as the backdrop, Erdogan can resume his role as the nation's protector and its moral guide. His police become justified in their use of tear gas. Rather than by relating to voters, Erdogan can get their support by scaring them. It may work. In seven months, Turks will head to the polls for local elections. "It's a numbers game," Aydintasbas told me. "He has the masses on his side." All the same, baiting the protester could prove short-sighted: If the unrest harms the Turkish economy—Erdogan's pride and joy—the politics could prove tricky. Perhaps anticipating that, Erdogan’s expressions of concern for the businesses around Taksim have focused not on how the’ve been impacted by the redevelopment (much less by the tear gas) so much as on condemn the protesters for hurting business.

In the last election, in 2011, Erdogan's AKP won half the country's support, although Aydintasbas was quick to remind me that the percentage was 50.5%, not the 51% that has been widely quoted in stories about the protests. It's a narrow margin, but the protests and their multitude of differently colored party flags and no apparent leadership shows a deeply fractured 49.5%. Erdogan speaks from his majority, without apparent concern for winning more support. "They say the prime minister is harsh," Erdogan continued, in his address to the AKP. "The prime minister is firm. I'm sorry. This prime minister is not going to change."

But although his callousness might have come as a surprise, the delivery shouldn't have. Erdogan makes even the most unpredictable American politician look robotic. He speaks in the moment, he says what he's thinking, and the protests haven't changed him, yet. This is, after all, the same prime minister who, in 2009 in Davos, stormed off the stage after calling Shimon Peres a murderer. The outburst garnered him supporters in Turkey and the Arab world.  Why would a successful prime minister stop trusting his gut now. "It's his personality, his instinct," Aydintasbas said. "They insulted him, his person, his wife." Offended that criticism of him was spray painted all over the center of Istanbul and broadcast on international news, the prime minister lashed out at dissenting citizens the same way he’d lashed out at Peres, calling Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—the founder of the Turkish Republic and a symbol of secularism—a "drunkard," and accusing the protesters of living up to this reputation.

Alas, Erdogan has proven incapable of using the same moral arguments against himself and his police as he does against either his domestic foes or foreign targets like Hosni Mubarak or Bashar Al Assad. The brutality of his police force and the number of arrested or injured (4,000 hurt, three dead, and the numbers rising) following what began as peaceful protests has made Erdogan's bravery seem like dictatorial nerve. Some people I spoke to were sure that their prime minister had simply lost his grip on reality. How else to explain the fact that a democratically elected leader would sooner arrest or injure protesters—and discredit his government in the process—than reconsider plans to build a shopping mall?

Addressing supporters, Erdogan also sounded frustrated: "As prime minister, I say: enough!"  The tent city in Gezi Park had grown hospitable—complete with a library, pharmacy, and stage—but to Erdogan it looked like another country altogether.  "I will have to speak the language you understand," he said to the park's strange inhabitants. Today when police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters in the square it was Erdogan speaking that language. Andrew Gardner, the Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, sent a message at 9:30 tonight. It read, "Prime Minister Erdogan now bears personal responsibility for the violence that immediately followed his words."