Prime Minister Erdogan: Turkey's Man of The People

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Kayhan Ozer / A.A. / Sipa

Erdogan, Turkey's transformational Prime Minister, wants to emerge as a leader of the region

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A Liberal Democracy — or Not?
In truth, the Arab Spring has forced Turkey to confront the question of exactly what kind of emerging power it wants to be. It could end up like China, nationalist and self-interested, using its economic muscle to advance its political ambitions. Or it could be ready to take on the challenges of multilateral diplomacy and regional leadership. "I don't think that Erdogan wants Turkey to be seen in the same light as China, as a country that will do anything to preserve its economic self-interest," says the New America Foundation's Molavi. "But the big question that Turkey has to ask itself is this: Are we a liberal democracy or not?"

The answer will have ramifications both at home and abroad. For years, the AKP has been trying to rewrite Turkey's constitution to limit the power of the military, which since Ataturk's day has been the enforcer of the secular order, occasionally by force. The party would like to loosen rules regarding things like the wearing of headscarves, which are banned in state-owned spaces such as universities, courtrooms and political institutions. Erdogan would also like to shift the country from its parliamentary system to a presidential one, which would allow him to further consolidate power. But while the AKP did well in the parliamentary elections, it didn't win enough seats to rewrite the constitution without consultation. The election "gives Erdogan the message that he needs to work together with opposition parties to do this, rather than trying to do it on his own based on his own principles, which wouldn't be healthy," says Sahin Alpay, a political professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

The constitution has been repeatedly tweaked, most recently last year, but there's widespread agreement that it needs updating. The document does more to protect the state than the nation's citizens and is reflective of the insecure Turkey of a previous era that desperately wanted to move into the modern (read: Western) world. The headscarf ban that is supposed to be a reflection of the secular state, for example, is now considered by many a violation of civil liberties. Updating the constitution would allow more freedom of speech and protect the rights of minorities like the Kurds, 14 million strong, who live in the southeastern part of the country. The current constitution allows the government to prevent Kurds from speaking their language and gathering for cultural events.

In the past, Erdogan has been a defender of the Kurds, giving them more freedom and autonomy. He's promised more still, including amnesty for the guerrilla fighters of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group whose leaders are based in the mountains of northern Iraq. But Erdogan hasn't yet delivered, leading to a mounting sense of unrest in the Kurdish southeast. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about the AKP's suppression of civil rights within Turkey. Under Erdogan, the police have become increasingly powerful and are allegedly dominated by a tightly knit religious brotherhood. Two internationally acclaimed Turkish journalists investigating the police were detained and jailed in March and have yet to be tried. Journalists now assume that their phones are tapped; public leaks of private conversations have become commonplace. Many believe the AKP was behind the recent release of a spate of sex tapes showing senior members of an opposition party in bed with women who were not their wives.

Erdogan's critics are also concerned about runaway economic growth and its impact on the environment. Just as in China, breakneck development in Turkey has had serious consequences. Yet when thousands of villagers along the Black Sea and the Aegean coast gathered to protest pollution from power plants, Erdogan called them "bandits." He has been similarly dismissive of opposition to the plans to build the country's first nuclear power plant in an earthquake zone, though polls show a majority of Turks to be against the project.

All this raises questions about exactly what Turks can expect from the AKP in its third term. Erdogan's party may have scored an enormous victory, but challenges are brewing on many fronts. The economy, while still robust, needs rebalancing. Exports are beginning to slow, and the country's current account deficit is growing. There's a lot of hot money in the country, which could leave at any moment. Policymakers badly need to loosen the labor market and institute tax reforms. And Turkey's ambition to shape the future of the region remains a hostage to the many conservative Turkish entrepreneurs doing business with the Middle East's old regimes.

Yet for all the concerns about Erdogan and the challenges facing his new government, both the U.S. and Western Europe have a stake in seeing Turkey succeed and become the sort of open, economically dynamic, politically confident nation that can act as a model in the Islamic world. The test will come over rewriting the constitution. If Erdogan uses the negotiations primarily to try to push forward a religious agenda and consolidate his power base, he could end up alienating both Kurds and secular liberals and make it impossible for Turkey to serve as a model of liberal Islamic democracy. But if he makes civil rights and individual liberty the focus, he may be remembered as the man who brought Turkey into its next stage of development on its own terms. Either way, the eyes of the world will be on him.
— With reporting by Pelin Turgut / Istanbul

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