Turk­ish vot­ers give ‘Sul­tan’ a slap

Elec­tion re­sults de­rail Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan’s vi­sion of trans­form­ing his cer­e­mo­nial post into a seat of power.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Laura King laura.king@la­times.com Twit­ter: @lau­rak­ingLAT

ISTANBUL, Turkey — It’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point just when the leader once nick­named “The Sul­tan” be­came a fig­ure more akin to the em­peror who had no clothes.

For more than a dozen years, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s gilded ca­reer had taken him from one elec­toral tri­umph to the next, heap­ing spoils and glory not only on the Is­lamist-rooted po­lit­i­cal party he co­founded but also on the 61-year-old leader.

All that changed Sun­day, when vot­ers de­liv­ered the elec­toral equiv­a­lent of a ring­ing slap in the face to the man once con­sid­ered the most popular politi­cian in the coun­try’s mod­ern his­tory.

The vot­ing re­sults de­prived Er­do­gan’s Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Party, or AKP, of the sin­gle-party power it had en­joyed since 2002 and derailed his per­sonal vi­sion of trans­form­ing the largely cer­e­mo­nial post of pres­i­dent, which he as­sumed in Au­gust, into an over­ar­ch­ing seat of power.

The bal­lot-box ver­dict could be read as an af­fir­ma­tion of what had long been the buzz in Turkey’s an­cient bazaars and spank­ing-new sky­scrapers: that Er­do­gan, once seen as a sav­ior, was in dan­ger of be­com­ing a na­tional li­a­bil­ity.

Wea­ried by years of harsh crack­downs and grandiose ges­tures on Er­do­gan’s part, many Turks came to view him as a leader who burned bridges rather than build­ing them. The aura of fear and rev­er­ence dis­solved into some­thing un­fa­mil­iar and far more sub­ver­sive: laugh­ter.

It wasn’t al­ways like that. Er­do­gan came of po­lit­i­cal age as an out­sider who mounted coura­geous chal­lenges to Turkey’s of­ten-sin­is­ter mil­i­tary-dom­i­nated power elite. Jailed for recit­ing a poem, he dab­bled in pri­son verse. In his early years in power, with his star on the rise, he was a dar­ling of the West, hailed as the mod­er­ate face of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam.

He em­pow­ered an en­tre­pre­neur­ial class of pi­ous Mus­lims who be­came an en­gine of Turkey’s eye-catch­ing eco­nomic growth. In a di­verse and com­plex so­ci­ety strug­gling to find a foothold in the mod­ern world, Er­do­gan preached in­clu­sive­ness and backed up his words with ac­tions.

As prime min­is­ter, he risked con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to reach out to the mi­nor­ity Kurds and worked to halt a bloody civil con­flict of decades’ stand­ing. For a time, he worked as­sid­u­ously to forge friendly re­la­tions with neigh­bors — even with Is­rael, re­viled through­out the Mus­lim world.

On the misty shores of the Bosporus, Turks of­fered dif­fer­ing day-af­ter as­sess­ments Mon­day of when and how it went wrong for Er­do­gan. Some traced the tra­jec­tory to the vi­o­lent crack­down on demon­stra­tions that sprang up in 2013 in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, a rel­a­tively nar­row green-minded protest move­ment that turned into a broader ex­pres­sion of popular dis­con­tent.

“The Gezi move­ment was im­por­tant, be­gin­ning a dis­course of change,” said Esra Ozyurek, a scholar of con­tem­po­rary Turkey at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics. As ar­rests and beat­ings mounted, Er­do­gan, who had en­tered pol­i­tics as a cham­pion of the op­pressed, be­gan to be seen as an op­pres­sor.

Hard on the heels of the Gezi protests came a cor­rup­tion scan­dal that spurred Er­do­gan, then still prime min­is­ter, to purge hun­dreds of sup­port­ers of a ri­val move­ment led by a one­time ally, ex­iled cleric Fethul­lah Gulen, from the po­lice, ju­di­ciary and me­dia.

At the same time, it es­caped the no­tice of few that Er­do­gan ap­peared bent on un­do­ing the secular-demo­cratic le­gacy of Turkey’s found­ing leader, Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk. Seek­ing to sym­bol­i­cally re­voke one of Ataturk’s sig­na­ture feats, a ren­der­ing of Turk­ish in the Ro­man al­pha­bet, Er­do­gan last year vowed to im­pose com­pul­sory lessons in Ara­bic-al­pha­bet Ot­toman script.

Bel­li­cose and ret­ro­grade state­ments be­came the new norm. A woman’s job, Er­do­gan told a fe­male au­di­ence, is moth­er­hood. Twit­ter, he de­clared, was “evil.” To the Euro­pean Union, when it urged greater me­dia free­dom, he replied: “Mind your own busi­ness.” For the New York Times, which re­cently wrote a sharply worded ed­i­to­rial about Turkey los­ing its way, he of­fered this ri­poste: “Know your place.”

Vir­u­lent at­tacks on jour­nal­ists and so­cial me­dia be­came rou­tine as the list of mat­ters over which the pres­i­dent was ridiculed grew longer. There was the op­u­lent 1,150-room pres­i­den­tial palace, com­plete with Ot­toman-era touches such as a team of food testers to guard against poi­son­ing, whose $615-mil­lion cost Er­do­gan jus­ti­fied just be­fore the elec­tion by say­ing that his pre­vi­ous res­i­dence had suf­fered from an in­fes­ta­tion of cock­roaches.

There was the movie-set pres­i­den­tial guard, done up in Tur­kic war­rior cos­tumes from cen­turies past, and the teenage boy dragged from his class­room to ac­count for a Face­book post. A politi­cian once known for skill­ful, even spell­bind­ing rhetoric fell back on con­spir­a­to­rial rants, with the fi­nal days of the cam­paign con­sumed by his dark mut­ter­ings about the sedi­tious ten­den­cies of Ar­me­ni­ans and ho­mo­sex­u­als.

Such rhetoric went down well with the pres­i­dent’s con­ser­va­tive base. But the un­happy state of af­fairs in Turkey was mem­o­rably en­cap­su­lated last month by au­thor Stephen Kinzer, a long-re­spected ob­server of the coun­try.

“Once seen as a skilled mod­ern­izer, he now sits in a 1,000-room palace de­nounc­ing the Euro­pean Union, de­cree­ing the ar­rest of jour­nal­ists, and rant­ing against short skirts and birth con­trol,” Kinzer wrote of Er­do­gan in a col­umn in the Bos­ton Globe. Ret­ri­bu­tion was swift: The au­thor said a high civic honor that was to be be­stowed on him by a Turk­ish city was swiftly re­scinded.

Er­do­gan, who was ubiq­ui­tous dur­ing the cam­paign — in de­fi­ance of a con­sti­tu­tional role that is sup­posed to keep the pres­i­dent above pol­i­tics — re­mained si­lent for a full 18 hours af­ter it first be­came clear that the AKP’s hopes for a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity had gone un­re­al­ized. Even then, his first public re­sponse was in the form of a writ­ten state­ment, not a per­sonal ap­pear­ance.

The elec­tion re­sults, he said, “do not give the op­por­tu­nity to any party to form a sin­gle-party gov­ern­ment,” im­plic­itly invit­ing them to con­sider form­ing a coali­tion.

So far, none has ex­pressed an in­ter­est in part­ner­ing with the AKP. If a new gov­ern­ment can­not be as­sem­bled within 45 days, Turkey will prob­a­bly hold new elec­tions. Shock waves from Sun­day’s re­sults, mean­while, rat­tled Turkey’s f inan­cial mar­kets Mon­day, with the stock mar­ket slid­ing and the lira touch­ing new lows.

The party’s tit­u­lar head, Prime Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu, re­minded the public that the AKP was still the largest bloc in par­lia­ment, af­ter win­ning about 41% of the vote. “It is the win­ner; it fin­ished first in th­ese elec­tions,” he said.

Some an­a­lysts pointed out that it is easy to for­get that Er­do­gan skill­fully har­nessed pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal im­pulses that re­main widely felt in Turkey — and could do so again.

“He is still pres­i­dent for the next four years, and he has con­sid­er­able au­thor­i­ties and has by all ac­counts ex­ploited ev­ery one of them,” said Fran­cis J. Ric­cia­r­done, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Turkey who is now a vice pres­i­dent of the At­lantic Coun­cil think tank. “He is clearly go­ing to be inf lu­en­tial.”

Bu­rak Kara Getty Images

SUP­PORT­ERS in Di­yarbakir, Turkey, cel­e­brate a pro-Kur­dish party’s bal­lot gains. Be­fore his crack­downs alien­ated vot­ers, Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan had reached out to mi­nor­ity Kurds as prime min­is­ter.

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