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Authoritarian drift

Erdogan’s intransigence is damaging the image of Turkey and is tarnishing his record

On Tuesday a vigorous police charge temporarily put an end to the occupation of Taksim Square in Istanbul. But the political crisis in Turkey is far from over. What began 12 days ago as a peaceful movement, to save one a green space from the voracity of builders in the country’s economic capital, has developed into the biggest protest seen in the last 30 years.

The leafy sycamores of Gezi, the famous park adjacent to Taksim, have become the symbol of resistance to authoritarian drift of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party. The progressive Islamization of public mores, the curtailment of liberties (as shown by the imprisonment of journalists and opposition figures) and the aberrant real estate projects undertaken in disregard of local opinion, have generated the discontent that has brought citizens of all ages and ideologies out onto the street. In the face of this show of democratic vitality, Erdogan has opted for brutal repression, with a toll, so far, of at least three dead and thousands of injuries and arrests.

It is true that this is an essentially urban protest, headed by the educated elites of Istanbul, Ankara and Smyrna, and that the prime minister enjoys wide support among the conservative rural population of Anatolia. But his intransigence may well derail the train that has run so smoothly throughout 10 years of government, thanks to a pragmatism that answered the widespread public desire to free the state from the tutelage of the armed forces, who have long stood as guardians of the secularism imposed by Atatürk, and were in the habit of maintaining their power by means of coups d’état.

Erdogan brought the unruly generals to rule, and implemented an array of reforms with an eye to entry into the European Union. His economic management has borne fruit, as seen with GDP growth of five percent a year, and he has initiated an unprecedented process of negotiations to put an end to the Kurdish conflict.

But his isolation and his autocratic leanings are beginning to divorce him from reality, as well as opening rifts within his own party: the distancing of his heretofore chief ally, the president Abdullah Gül, is now out in the open. Erdogan plans to reform the Constitution to shift from a parliamentary system to a clearly presidentialist one, and then to run in the 2015 elections in order to govern for another 10 years. The question is, which model is it he has in mind? Is it that of the United States, or Putin’s Russia?

A guiding light

Turkey not only aspires to enter the European Union and to host the 2020 Olympic Games; it has also become a guiding light for the countries lately shaken by the Arab Spring, as being a model for coexistence between democracy and Islam. But the terms employed by Erdogan during the protests — calling the demonstrators “conspirators encouraged by foreign powers” and referring to the social networks as the “worst threat” to the country — were the same terms that were used by the overthrown dictators.

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