Can late Erdoğan learn from early Erdoğan?: Tamer Söyler

This guest post by TAMER SÖYLER is the first of a three-part series on Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests for Kafila.

Photographs by Tamer Söyler

The 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, is said to have remarked: being President is like running a cemetery; you have got a lot of people under you and nobody is listening. As is the case with any good politician, Clinton is known for his bamboo-like character. During his presidency whenever he looked the weakest, he proved to come stronger out of the chaos. Clinton’s remarkable flexibility provided him the ability to bend as much as he needed to achieve his goals without breaking. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, proved again that he does not have Clinton’s sense of humour, his presidency or his flexibility.

Turkey is a parliamentary representative democracy. Erdoğan has been expressing his intention to transform the country into a presidential system and become the first president of the country. The government plans to put the question of a constitutional referendum to a vote in the year 2014. The people of Turkey are suffering from a great anxiety related to a fear of finding themselves in an authoritarian, charismatic presidential system. Protestors worry that without adequate mechanisms to enforce the separation of powers in the constitution, Erdoğan can easily transform Turkey into an authoritarian regime.

The unrest in Turkey can neither be likened to the Arab Spring nor the Occupy Wall Street movement for two reasons. First, Erdoğan is a prestigious politician. He made a reputation for himself as the mayor of İstanbul between the years 1994 and 1998. After a difficult political struggle, he first assumed office as the Prime Minister in the year 2003. Erdoğan has won three elections (2002, 2007, and 2011) with increasing votes (10.8 million, 16. 3 million, 21.3 million). For more than ten years he has been in the office. He is a legitimate leader who came to power with free elections. Protestors do not question Erdoğan’s legitimacy. Second, within the colourful coalition of protestors are numerous groups highlighting various kinds of problems (e.g. social and economic inequality, police brutality, environmentalism, a citizen’s individual right to question authority). Some of these issues may have family resemblances with the Occupy Wall Street movement but similarities are not tangible enough to tag this unrest as an Occupy movement.

When their opinions are asked the protestors raise several issues. There is a large pool of demands and it is not easy to transcend singularities and arrive at particularities. May this be the case, for the sake of brevity one can claim to have pulled out one abstract universal message: Enough is enough! Prove your democratic credentials! As a principle the protestors are calling the government to abandon the monophonic tone in governance. This is a call for a more refined democracy. The colourful coalition of protestors is demanding a polyphonic approach. The intangibles of the demands can be translated into two tangibles. First, although this point is not stated loud and clear, protestors expect the government to remove or lower the %10 election threshold. Second, they want an institutionalized participatory democracy. When the government wants to implement projects that would alter everyday lives of the citizens, popular support from the public must be sought. The protestors perceive that Erdoğan not only ignores these demands but also he wants to go to the opposite direction by leading the country into a presidential system. From the perspective of the protestors Erdoğan’s plans can only translate as a repression of opposition.

An “unexpected” protest and solidarity against violence

Taksim Park is located in a historically important central square in İstanbul. The square and the surrounding area are often the first stop for foreign tourists. The shuttles from both airports take tourists to the square from where they can easily reach their hotels. This is one of the few green places in the city centre. Protestors started gathering in the park on the 27th of May. They simply wanted to oppose the demolition of the park. A peaceful environmental protest has changed its character after the police intervention. In the early hours of the morning on the 31st of May, police surrounded protestors in Taksim Gezi Parkı. Police moved into the park with chemical sprays and tear gas. Excessive use of force by the police triggered a public unrest.


At the beginning it was all about the Park. Police brutality had a snowball effect and a purely environmentalist protest turned into an expression of anger against the government. After the first attacks, protestors called for solidarity on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In response to the police violence, thousands of protesters turned up. The turnout was exceptional. One of the Kurdish protestors, Selahattin (name changed) was surprised. According to him, police violence in Turkey was not uncommon. He remarked “The only difference is that it has happened in the West now, at the heart of İstanbul, not in the East.”

Although the massive crowd was impressive, the common public opinion was that the police would take control in a couple of hours. They were wrong. The protestors were extremely agitated by the police violence and they refused to retreat. Police used excessive amounts of tear gas, water cannons, and even rubber bullets. Because the police forces were persistently aggressive and state officials in their public appearances showed no sign of empathy, more people joined the protest each day.

No one, not the protestors, the government, the opposition or the police force have expected such a big protest. The usual suspects were known to everyone: leftist groups, Kurdish dissidents and secularists. Nobody had imagined that such a large body of people who could not be easily situated in this oppositional trio would raise their voices altogether and walk to Taksim square. This must be why, for an unexpectedly long period of time, Erdoğan could not register the fact that protestors were neither a minority nor apolitical milieus manipulated by foreign agents.

Up until now, the Prime Minister did not cease hitting back at his critics. As a man who has dedicated himself to serve the nation, he says, he cannot accept that his actions have been authoritarian. This protest, according to Erdoğan, is carried out by an ungrateful minority. This explains why dozens of protestors remarked that Erdoğan simply does not get it. As if he wants to enhance the popular view that he is missing the point, Erdoğan continues to share his desperately self-supporting theses (e.g. foreign agents, deep state conspiracy). The Prime Minister seems to have shot himself in the foot on the eve of election season. There will be three elections (municipal, presidential and parliamentary) in the next two years and unless Erdoğan understands that there is a growing dissatisfaction with his monophonic style he is likely to pay a great political price.

The art of shooting oneself in the foot

The Prime Minister is known to regularly follow public surveys and pay a great deal of attention to what they need to indicate. Whenever social scientific research indicates public dissatisfaction, Erdoğan immediately reacts and makes a sharp manoeuvre to gain an advantageous political position. This time the surveys could not foresee the growing amounts of grievance among citizens. This is one of the reasons Erdoğan continued to misread the protests for over two weeks. Since social scientific surveys indicated public support for his government he interpreted that the usual suspects were behind the protests to “stir the pot” and “gain from the disturbance”.


Erdoğan and his advisors should have known better: Social eruptions can be likened to poetry. They are driven by spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Once triggered, nature takes its course and the movement goes to an unpredictable direction. The only way to make sense of what happened is to recollect emotions retrospectively in tranquillity and find out where the unrest took its origin from. Strong feelings dominating social psychology cannot always be monitored by social scientific surveys. Due to all reasons mentioned above, it is often the artists of the respective society feel and correctly interprets such sentiments. Not only Erdoğan has become overly reliant on surveys, he also did everything to silence artists, writers and independent journalists who dared to raise their voices against the policies of the government. Their criticism was either repressed or treated as capricious artistic ideas. Erdoğan decided not to indulge what he regarded as marginal artists’ whims. As a result he was not guided by anyone that the unrest was rolling up in the consciousness of the citizens.

A clear warning for the government should have been the absence of support (e.g. an awkward combination centre-left and centre-right liberalism) from liberal milieus. Erdoğan did not need the surveys or the artists to register the liberal shift. The point was abundantly addressed by journalists and commentators for the last two years. Simply put, left-liberal milieus supported the government in the last decade to see that the government successfully curbed the military power. Right-liberals, on the other hand, supported the government on the condition that it embraced the basic principles of economic liberalism. Erdoğan lost the backing of the former when he started to build an image that as soon as he gained unprecedented political power he would stop being serious about transforming the country into a full-fledged democracy. And the right-liberals were disturbed by Erdoğan’s increasing Islamic tone. These milieus are not convinced about Erdoğan’s self-proclaimed commitment to the tradition of centre-right political tradition prominent in Turkey. Although Erdoğan likens himself to the heroes of these milieus (Adnan Menderes and Turgut Özal) he is not popularly accepted this way. Rather than trying to convince different layers of liberals Erdoğan must have concluded that he did not need their conditional support anymore. Erdoğan’s solution was to push forward his party’s neo-liberal Islamist modernization agenda stronger than ever before. In the light of the current events one can easily argue that this was a grave mistake.

The Prime Minister is an experienced politician. He surely knows the inner dynamics of the field of politics in this country much better than a great number of people. May this be the case, he has fallen into error. He can indeed guarantee a popular base for his party by utilizing the politics of piety. But he cannot put new wine in old bottles. More than a decade ago, Erdoğan had realized that his mentor Necmettin Erbakan’s good old political tactics would not work in an increasingly globalising world. As a pragmatic leader, he allowed different perspectives to have enough place in his party. Because of the vacuum in the centre-right of the political field in Turkey, he attracted great many people who would have otherwise not supported him. Today he is overconfident. He seems to think that he assumed a posture of political powerhouse that frees him from the painful process of dialectical politics. He is wrong. The liberal milieus have played an important role in the last decade as a buffer zone between the conservatives and the seculars. Erdoğan should have predicted that without liberals meditating between the seculars and the conservatives, conservative views would be revealed without stint. Although the social, economic or political configuration was not significantly altered, due to the liberal shift in the field of politics, the westernised (and seemingly apolitical) social milieus were quickly agitated. They constitute the backbone of the protests.

Can late Erdoğan learn from early Erdoğan?

Had early Erdoğan not possessed sense of humour, flexibility and a polyphonic approach, he could have not ruled this country for the last decade. The protestors do not question his legitimacy as a leader. Although thousands are voicing serious criticism, the upheaval does not have an anti-systemic character. They simply demand a better democracy. If Erdoğan continues to misread the present configuration and pushes the country towards a presidential system, he could expect more protests. He must realize that he can no more perceive dissidence exclusively spread in three groups: leftists, Kurdish dissidents and secularists. Focusing on this trio will result in a discourse of “ungrateful minorities”. The Prime Minister can perhaps convince his core supporter base with this simplistic discourse and use policing to control dissent. This polarization strategy can only accumulate more grievances against the government.


Three aspects of late Erdoğan’s leadership pushed the Prime Minister into playing the card of politics of piety again: an over-reliance to public surveys and recommendations from advisors; persistence to monitor and control the intellectual and artistic fields; and careless attitude towards a quickly disappearing liberal support.  Early Erdoğan knows better than anyone else in this country that this is not a winning hand. It might be difficult for the Prime Minister to accept that with every coming generation, political landscape is inevitably altered. After all, it was him and his team who challenged their leader Necmettin Erbakan’s authority and formed another party that immediately seized political power. A new generation of politicians will likely to do the same. Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian tone is unlikely to be appreciated by anyone. Many Turkish proverbs suggest that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks. There is good news and bad news. Good news is that Erdoğan does not need to learn new tricks. He needs to remember how to be a bamboo again. He has to look modest while he is confident. He has to be flexible so that he can bend as much as he needs. Early Erdoğan was a master of the craft. Whether or not late Erdoğan finally manages to understand the nature of the unrest the Taksim Gezi Parkı movement is likely to define the future of politics in this country.

(Tamer Söyler is a PhD candidate and a guest lecturer at the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. He was born in Turkey and lived most of his life in Istanbul. He studied at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for a semester and has often visited India.)

8 thoughts on “Can late Erdoğan learn from early Erdoğan?: Tamer Söyler”

  1. I think the author is more worried about Erdogan than about the people or protesters of turkey and is trying to convince Erdogan how do deal with the ‘problem’ as a political guide of the government.


  2. Dear “manpreet”,

    I think it will be obvious to you after you read the second and the third parts that what I am primarily concerned of is the nature of the unrest. It is of the utmost importance to note that one should have a fair analytical grasp of the unrest before passing any comments about it. One should do his or her best to establish a fine balance between different opinions. If I am worried about anything, it is perhaps understanding.

    Best, T.


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