Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is quickly becoming one of the most colorful (and blatantly thuggish) public figures in the world.
Last month, after a mine explosion in the Anatolian town of Soma killed 301 workers, Erdoğan traveled to the town to announce three days of mourning. The visit—both an expected post-disaster trip by a national leader and a possible play to maintain favor with his rural power base—backfired. Badly.
The Soma trip escalated rapidly to a full-blown public relations crisis. In his speech, Erdoğan seemed to treat the collapse as a personal affront—listing other mine disasters and cajoling, rather than consoling. He faced booing, jeers, and general public rage at the government’s lax and nepotistic oversight of Turkish mines, which have the highest recorded fatality rate in the world. As he left the site, furious protestors attacked his car. In a following press conference, he offered the sympathetic comment that mine accidents “happen all the time.” As the riot police detained demonstrators and shot teargas into the crowd, Erdoğan’s adviser Yusuf Yerkel was photographed violently kicking a mourner on the ground. And, perhaps most shockingly, after jeering at angry villagers, he threatened them with, “if you boo the country’s prime minister, you get slapped.” Minutes later, he followed through on the threat, slapping a man outside a local grocery store on tape while calling another protestor, “Israeli semen.”
Now, you’d be forgiven for missing the titular Winehouse reference, but patterns in Erdoğan’s erratic, defensive, and downright thuggish behavior have many wondering about his future political prospects (and, in the case of the Turkish Medical Association, his mental health). His repeated threats to “rip out the roots” of Twitter (… wires?) and his controversial decision to block social media sites resulted in Constitutional Court rulings against him. Perhaps most damagingly in the eyes of his largely Islamist political base, he and his inner circle were linked to high-profile corruption and sex scandals in late 2013, including an allegedly wiretapped conversation between Erdoğan and his son that would implicate him in enormous graft.
And none of that is to mention the aftermath of last year’s devastating crackdown on demonstrators in Istanbul protesting Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. The death toll of these came to 8, including 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, a civilian who was on his way to buy bread at his local grocer when he was hit in the head with a tear gas canister. At the news of Elvan’s death after 269 days in a coma, more protests erupted, prompting Erdoğan to accuse the boy of being a terrorist and allegedly lead a crowd in booing Elvin’s mourning family. The backlash—and the one-year anniversary of the original protests—prompted more violent crackdowns and showcase a growing chasm between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and urban middle-class Turks, some of whom initially stood behind Erdoğan’s reformist agenda as the AKP wrested power from the hands of the Turkish old guard in the early 2000s.
And as he is widely rejected by the left and the former Turkish political establishment, Erdoğan also faces perhaps an even greater challenge behind his own frontline. Inhabiting a shadowy corner of Turkish politics, the “Hizmet” Movement is led by the charismatic cleric Fethullah Gülen from self-imposed exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Numbering as many as 8 million members, Hizmet appears to be in full-blown conflict with the AKP, arguing that Erdoğan is consolidating authoritarian power and advocating a destructive brand of Islam. The AKP accuses Hizmet of running a “parallel state“: an Illuminati-like infiltration of the police, judiciary, education system, and business sector. In addition to accusing Gülen of fabricating his wiretapped conversations through a network of Hizmet-controlled prosecutors, Erdoğan clearly fears the influence that comes with the nutty metonym “Pennyslvania.” Paranoia or not, parallel state or not, Hizmet’s influence in Turkey is very real, and the Islamist rift may eventually offer the space for the AKP’s enemies to resume control of the Turkish state (in particular, the Army).
So, Erdoğan’s future is pretty bleak, right?
Defying challenges from the old elite political establishment, the military, the liberal left, Hizmet, the Sufist religious right, and even from within his own party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lives to fight another day.
And not just that. Erdoğan seems poised to capture even more power in the 2015 general elections, renewing the AKP’s recently-won mandate in local elections and creating a new quasi-dictatorial position for himself. The Turkish constitution was changed in 2007 to allow the direct election of the country’s president (rather than a parliamentary appointment), stemming from legislation Erdoğan pushed through two presidential vetoes and clearly anticipated would allow him to retain power after his stint as Prime Minister. If elected today, he would necessarily resign from the AKP and become neutral. However, he is widely expected to push further legislation allowing him to stay on as AKP Party leader, effectively eliminating the role of the Prime Minister and rendering Turkey a presidential regime. And his victory in electoral elections is almost assured.
So, the question is: how? How can a man rejected by his original allies, facing rebellion on several fronts, and eschewing nearly every part of his original agenda of moderation, reform, and democratization be riding a tide of popular fervor that appears to be bigger than ever?
The answer probably lies in Erdoğan’s carefully-constructed narrative. He possesses the Islamist credentials of navigating the Turkish state away from secularism, even when working in loose coalitions with secularists early in his Prime Ministership. In this respect, reform in Turkey meant doing away with the darker sides of Kemalist rule: economic underdevelopment, inequality, elite domination, militarism, brutal enmity with Kurdish separatists, and coup after coup (hmm… what does that sound like?). Despite a relatively high unemployment rate, the AKP also bases its mandate on a track record of steady economic development. In the historical moment where it was possible to be a reformer, it was also possible to be an Islamist, the champion of economic development and traditional values. And a democrat.
In this case, constructing a cult of personality may not exclude reliance on this all-important electoral mandate. This seems to be the basis of Erdoğan’s genius—constructing an incredibly loyal voter base that is willing to view him as an “elected sultan” and rally to support him with incredible fervor. This is populism spiced with a generous dash of nationalism. The AKP seems semi-obsessed with Ottoman history, and in this story, the Great Nation comes with a Great Man to prevent defeat and humiliation by outsiders. Internal dissent is punished mercilessly, as a mechanism to preserve unity in a diverse polity. In short, thuggish behavior is practiced for the greater good.
In a sense, Erdoğan’s enemies make him what he is. He thrives on conspiracy theories; many supporters maintain that all corruption scandals are the dirty work of the Harriyet and the sinister Fethullah Gülen. Brutal crackdowns are one thing—especially when they can be construed as the work of hooligans, terrorists, or foreigners who are “not sincere” and hired to mislead (see: Erdoğan accusing the BBC of paying women to pose as mourning miners’ wives in Soma). And, as long as dissent is seen as an elite, largely urban phenomenon, the narrative of rule by majority and war against immoral secularism is preserved. As a self-described “Black Turk,” Erdoğan can oppose the establishment politics of the “White Turks”: the elite, whose convenient negligence of conservative, rural voters now presents an opportunity.
But—and this is a big but—Erdoğan has great reason to fear social media for its singular ability to showcase and substantiate other brands of thuggery. Demographically, Erdoğan’s voter base is numerically superior and growing fast—but is also very young and enjoying high internet penetration: the perfect recipe for social media growth. This fuels an inevitable war for image control. And there is only so much that an Islamic voter base can tolerate of their “Great Master” appearing defensive, weak, corrupt, or immoral. Assaulting mourning miners, explaining family sex tape scandals, battling corruption allegations (by the way, reshuffling your cabinet based on evidence from wiretaps and then denying the veracity of your own wiretap doesn’t look great), and defending deadly nepotism and incompetence are just a few ways to lose ground with a conservative demographic that admires Islamic piety and economic development. And accusing “Pennsylvania” of fabricating this bad behavior can only last so long in the Twito-Faceo-blogo-sphere.
In Turkey, not all thuggery is created equal, and Erdoğan’s longevity may depend on recognizing that.