Erdogan flexes his muscles and consolidates power
It is surprisingly easy to shut down a city of 14 million people if you have the correct resources and political will. Last Wednesday evening, Turkish police forces, bolstered by nearly 40,000 reserves poached from around the country, slowly sealed the centre of Istanbul, Europe’s largest city. Barricades stood in front of all entry points into Taksim Square as thousands of riot police roamed the empty streets. Their mission was simple: ensure that no one entered the square, the site of a massacre of 34 people during May Day protests in 1977 and ground zero for massive anti-government protests last June. The operation was months in the making but nearly inconceivable just years ago. In 2009, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP proudly asked Turkish citizens to flood the square to honour the dignity of international labour and mark the memory of those lost in 1977. Since anti-government protests erupted in Taksim and adjacent Gezi Park over rapid urbanisation in Istanbul, however, police have resorted to increasingly heavy-handed repression tactics to ensure the haphazard movement was unable to recapture momentum and stage a new onslaught of demonstrations.
Early on May 1, Istanbul was empty and quiet. Silence engulfed the city of 15 million as all public transportation in and around Taksim was closed by order of the city governor. The melancholy horns of ferries shuttling passengers between Europe and Asia on the Bosphorus were silent.
As the day grew long, isolated clashes broke out in the traditionally working class and leftist neighbourhoods of Besiktas and Sisli. Police arrested hundreds as an array of truck-mounted water cannons patrolled flash points near the square.
The message from the government came in no uncertain terms, as the prime minister displayed a remarkable will to shut down Istanbul in order to demonstrate his political resolve. It went down without a hitch.
For Mr Erdogan’s political future, May Day was a significant victory in his long-running campaign to dominate Turkish politics. After months of high-profile allegations against his government, the prime minister granted a rare interview to American journalist Charlie Rose just days before the planned May Day protests.
In the course of the interview, Mr Erdogan reiterated his defence of heavy-handed police response to non-violent protest and the continuing corruption probe against him and his allies.
Protester deaths were unfortunate, Mr Erdogan noted in measured terms, but they happen. His government was committed to rooting out members of what he referred to as a “parallel state”, referring to those in the police and judiciary connected to Fetullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States and former ally of Mr Erdogan.
Since December, Mr Gulen’s supporters in Turkey have publicised a series of high-profile corruption allegations against Mr Erdogan’s family and his closest confidants.
Despite the severity of the charges against his party, which include accusations of insider deals for some of Istanbul’s mega urban projects that will likely end up creating massive debts for the Turkish taxpayer, Mr Erdogan has been able to weather the storm. The AKP won key local elections earlier in major Turkish cities like Istanbul and the capital Ankara in what could be described as a referendum on Mr Erdogan’s rule. The victory paved the way for Mr Erdogan to seek the presidency in this summer’s election.
In the same vein as his repression of non-violent protesters, Mr Erdogan has removed, demoted or relocated thousands of police officers and judges thought to be linked to Mr Gulen. He publicly resisted interest rate hikes demanded by the Turkish central bank to help keep Turkey’s economy afloat after a string of financial blows spurred by the corruption probe.
In a bizarre twist, Mr Erdogan’s government recently called upon the United States to extradite Mr Gulen. This move is all the more brash considering Mr Gulen has yet to be charged with any crime and therefore there is scant legal basis for the United States to send the preacher to Turkey.
Mr Erdogan’s determination to establish political control has been tempered by growing international criticism of his governing style. As police forces were maintaining a lockdown in Taksim Square on May Day, the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House announced that the Turkish press is no longer free. For years, the respected organisation maintained that the press was “partly free”, but this year that unsavoury label has been demoted.
Turkey’s faltering economy, diminishing international standing and increasingly authoritarian government behaviour doesn’t seem to bother the ruling party in a serious way. This is because the country’s political future now firmly lies in the hands of the prime minister. Ironically, this new-found political capital was spent on a rare acknowledgement of the suffering of Armenians during the first half of the 20th century at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
Given the gravity of the political transformation gripping Turkey and the prospect that Mr Erdogan will soon have defeated all of his political opponents, the historic Armenian comments were quickly overshadowed by the possibility of renewed street violence in Istanbul.
A sad truism has emerged in Turkey. More pressure applied to Mr Erdogan’s rule, whether from Mr Gulen, the international community or leftist protesters, will only result in greater repression.
His track record is clear and at this point he appears unstoppable.
Joseph Dana is a correspondent for Monocle magazine and a regular contributor to The National
On Twitter: @ibnezra
Published: May 4, 2014 04:00 AM