‘Erdogan should quit while he’s ahead’

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s hardline stance towards the ongoing anti-government protests will only serve to further damage his reputation and the Turkish model of a modern and functional Muslim state, foreign policy expert Barbara Slavin argues.

On his return from a four-day trip to North Africa on Friday, Prime Minister Erdogan delivered a charged speech in which he vowed to end the “illegal” anti-government protests which have raged on since late last month.

He further pledged to carry on with plans to demolish Gezi Park, the site of a small sit-in demonstration which snowballed into mass, nationwide anti-government protests after police used tear gas and water cannon to break up the small civil action last Friday.

Although Ergodan’s fiery speech inspired the party faithful to 'lay down their lives' for the Turkish PM, his “tough guy approach” will likely hurt both the prime minister and his country in the long turn, Slavin told RT.

RT:What’s your impression of how Prime Minister Erdogan is dealing with the protests against him?

Barbara Slavin: Well, so far I don’t think he’s doing a very good job. This a huge blow to him personally –  to his image –  and also to the Turkish model which he has been touting around the Middle East as something that Arab countries should emulate. 

RT:Is his government united enough to prevent the Taksim protests from undermining his leadership?

BS: No, I think the damage has already been done. As has been pointed out, this was a small environmental demonstration which turned into something huge after police used excessive force against the demonstrators. It’s now spread throughout Turkey, and what it’s shown is that there is now a great deal of opposition to Erdogan personally and to the kind of creeping Islamization he is trying to promote in Turkey. It comes just a couple of weeks after he had a trip to Washington where he bragged about Turkey’s economic success and again talked about Turkey as a model. So I think it has done damage if you look at what has happened to the stock market in Turkey, to the value of the Turkish currency, clearly he needs to recalculate. I don’t think this tough guy approach is going to help Turkey in the long run.

RT:Erdogan is clearly sending the message that those who are protesting against him are clearly in the minority. Do you agree?

BS: I don’t think that’s at all clear and frankly, we will find out if he goes through with his plans to run as president in 2014. He wants to change the constitution to create a sort of imperial presidency, and then run for two terms as president. This kind of behavior is alienating people who are religious as well as those who are secular. So I think he’s taking a big risk by deepening the divide among Turks.  

RT:Let’s now take a look at the issue of popularity. Erdogan has already spent more than 10 years in power and can be re-elected an unlimited number of times. If he was getting things in the country so wrong, why isn't he being voted out?

BS: Well, it’s a parliamentary system, and the AK (Justice and Development) Party has been the largest party in terms of seats. But I wrote a piece for Al-Monitor this week talking about the importance of term limits. I think most people around the world understand that there is a limit to how long you can stay in power. When you go beyond two terms, and in Erdogans case, more than a decade, people begin to get tired of you no matter what country, whether it’s an authoritarian country or a democracy. He really should quit while he’s ahead, because obviously, the longer he’s there, even people who were predisposed to like him in the beginning begin to tire of his manner of governing. He’s somebody who lectures, who sermonizes, he doesn’t listen very well in my experience. And I think this is really not a good model for a country to purports to be a modern, Islamic democracy.

RT:At this point we can see a society that is divided. There are people in the pro-Erdogan camp, and people who are against him. How will these pro and anti-government protests progress? Are we likely to see more confrontations between them?

BS: I’m afraid so. It appears as if they are allowing people to remain in Taksim Square; they are not using harsh methods against them. Maybe they are calculating that people will eventually drift away. As I said, I think this has left lasting damage to him personally, and to Turkey, which of course has been very successful economically, it’s attracted many tourists from around the world. People may think twice now about going to Istanbul if there is tear gas going up and down Istiklal Avenue and in Taksim Square.

RT:A lot of Turks are proud of the fact that Turkey is a secular state and Erdogan is now being slammed for the Islamization of Turkey’s secular society. How much of this is true?

BS: We’ve heard talk about legislation which would limit when and people can buy alcohol and consume it in public, [as well as] restricting abortions. He’s urged women to all have three children, his wife wears a headscarf…there’s kind of a pushing of that as well. I think that there are a lot of Turks who are still loyal to the memory of Ataturk, and who do not want to have this forced down their throats. They want it to be a choice, not something that the government tells them to do.