Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey's new Ataturk?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party have made Turkey wealthier and more powerful on the world stage. But some Turks are concerned about a loss of civil liberties.

By , Staff writer

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    Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan votes in Istanbul on Sunday.
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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the charismatic man who has led Turkey for the past nine years, won a third term with overwhelming support in yesterday's parliamentary elections. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) captured 50 percent of the vote – nearly double that of its closest rival, giving it a resounding popular mandate.

The AKP had spared no expense to increase the political stature of their leader, despite charges of growing authoritarianism from a newly emboldened opposition. Mr. Erdogan had hoped to get at least 330 seats in the 550-seat parliament, which would have allowed the Islamic-rooted party to rewrite the Constitution – the one penned after a 1980 military coup – without the cooperation of the opposition.

But Mr. Erdogan fell slightly short of that goal. The AKP reportedly got 326 seats, leading Erdogan to pledge humility and a willingness to serve all Turks, whether they voted for him or not.

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Still, few will forget the outsized imagery that has come to characterize AKP rule after nine years at the helm.

At Erdogan's last big rally in Istanbul, he took to an outdoor stage with towering 20-foot-high portraits of himself on either side. All around the vast venue, dozens of large banners of Erdogan hung from wires, compared to just one banner of the revered father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

All that was fitting tribute in the eyes of AKP voter Mujahed Oynan. "I can't like [Erdogan] more; I can't think of another leader," the food engineer said between bursts of ear-splitting rhetoric from the stage.

On the back of widespread popularity, the AKP has transformed the political and economic landscape of Turkey. It has bolstered the economy in impressive fashion: the average economic output per capita has tripled since the party took power in 2002. It has also championed reforms in the name of democracy – and for its bid to join the European Union. A robust foreign policy has seen Turkey increase its stature on a host of regional issues.

But along the way, freedom of speech and other liberties have suffered, and critics wonder how far Erdogan and the AKP will reach during a third term.

"This is a society that loves the cult of the individual," says Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News. “[But] people get more and more fed-up seeing the same people in power, and as those in power get used to it more and more, they get more self-confident and less reformist,” says Mr. Akyol, author of the forthcoming book “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim case for Liberty.”

Turkey's commitment to democratic values questioned

The AKP's campaign has been marred by bitter words; a sex scandal using hidden cameras that forced a string of lawmaker resignations from a hard-line nationalist party; as well as Erdogan's frank admission that he was aware of electronic eavesdropping of rival parties.

Those events, and a number of government actions in recent years that have raised questions about Turkey's commitment to democratic values, have given new impetus to Turkey's once-decrepit main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

"The AKP does not keep the promises it made," CHP chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu told Al Jazeera English in an interview after the CHP's own Istanbul rally, which last week brought tens of thousands of supporters for the first time to the same vast venue, one day before the AKP rally.

"The AKP made promises about democracy and freedoms in the past too," Kilicdaroglu told AJE. "[But] under AKP rule, unprinted books were confiscated, hundreds of journalists were detained – some 60 journalists are in prison – businessmen can't talk because they are afraid.... They [the AKP] want democracy and freedoms for themselves. We want them for the people."

The prime minister's sometimes angry statements during the campaign have also raised eyebrows.

"As [AKP] votes are slipping, Erdogan is getting rougher; he swears. He utters words that no other leaders ever used in our political history," said Kilicdaroglu. "We are watching this with sadness."

'A real alternative' in the CHP opposition party

While many Turks applaud Erdogan's work ethic and the AKP's accomplishments, there were many doubts among the sea of CHP supporters at the opposition rally.

"They are very rich, but the money is mine," says Halil Ulvan, standing in the crowd with a paper CHP sun visor on his head.

"We want a change and want the AKP to go," says Kenan Yazici, another man at the CHP rally – a real estate agent in Istanbul with a Turkish flag tucked under his arm.

"Kilicdaroglu is a man of the people – that is what we believe," says Mr. Yazici, noting that since 1980 the party was "not close to the people" and was dismissed as elitist until Kilicdaroglu took over.

Indeed, the CHP is becoming a viable opposition again under Kilicdaroglu, who rose to the top of his party after his predecessor was forced to resign when an Islamist website released video of a purported affair with another CHP member caught on a hidden camera.

"[Kilicdaroglu] is making small revolutions in the evolution of the CHP," says Yazici. "Now with Kilicdaroglu we have a real alternative."

AKP: Boosted economy, weakened military

The AKP traces its roots to an Islamist party that was finally outlawed – even Erdogan was imprisoned for four months for reading a poem in 1998 that stated the "mosques are our barracks… the minarets our bayonets.”

The AKP has since shown, however, that it would not usher Iranian-style Islamic rule into Turkey, which would have upended nearly a century of Ataturk-driven secular rule. Instead it has overseen a pro-business agenda that has seen Turkey through the recent global downturn unscathed.

"Religion? They changed that for money," says one Turkish journalist covering the AKP rally, who could not be named giving a political opinion.

Yet at the same time, the AKP has fought back against the fiercely statist and secular establishment, by imposing civilian rule – through the courts and at the ballot box – over the once all-powerful military, and by deestablishing the establishment.

The AKP had to fight that fight to survive, but at the same time it “created a dynamism which made the AKP more and more strident,” says columnist Akyol. It also consolidated power in the hands of one individual, he says.

When the AKP was first formed, there were several key leaders at the top. But others fell away, and Abdullah Gul began president, so “it became the party of Erdogan, period,” notes Akyol. “This third term will be a time when the opposition criticizes the AKP for not being liberal enough.”

There are currently 57 journalists in prison in Turkey. The Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders downgraded Turkey's press freedom ranking from 102nd in the world in 2008 to 138th in 2010, behind Zimbabwe and Algeria. Some 7,000 websites are banned.

Opposition building momentum ahead of next election

Sensing a real chance during the campaign, the leader of the “new” CHP, Kilicdaroglu, traveled to each one of Turkey's 81 provinces and spoke at 300 rallies, while logging 36,660 miles by jet and helicopter, and thousands more by road, according to one Turkish media tabulation.

The prime minister, by contrast, traveled to just 68 provinces and addressed 90 rallies, while flying 24,808 miles [45,944km].

"The AKP made new investments in all areas, very quickly, and brought good stability for salaries," says Mr. Oynan, the AKP supporter, adding that there was "no chance" the opposition could win Sunday's vote. "But next election, in four years if the AKP does not fulfill its promises, people will choose another."

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