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Turkey's Erdogan Needs Lula Lessons

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Despite recent anti-government protests in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's is determined to overcome the current crisis, seek constitutional reform and win re-election in 2014. Ensuring his status as Turkey's most definitive leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk remains Erdogan's key objective in his ascent to power from humble origins.

Across the Atlantic, Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio da Silva, affectionately known as Lula, also rose from the grassroots to become his nation's most influential leader.

Whereas Lula succeeded in bridging the wide gap between populism and statesmanship, Erdoğan remains far behind the curve. Erdoğan should seize the initiative during the current crisis to elevate himself to a higher level. There is much he can learn from Lula during this process.

Lula began as a fiery trade union leader. He left the presidency after eight years with an approval rating of over 80 percent. He won the respect and admiration of the overwhelming majority of Brazilians. Even those originally against him acknowledged his achievements. While Erdoğan may claim roughly 50 percent popular support, half the country still remains opposed. He must reach out to them. Thus far, Erdoğan has failed in this task.

On the world stage, Lula and Erdoğan shared a cordial personal rapport and like-minded visions for their countries' growing prominence in world affairs. In 2010, they even joined forces at the U.N. Security Council, as non-permanent members, to defy the Permanent Five over Iran sanctions. As regional powers, their ability to shape developments, provide leadership and earn neighbors' respect increased exponentially over the past decade. Lula and Erdoğan provided critical value-added to the countries' rising brand names.

With young populations and export-driven economies, their common pragmatism has been crucial to rapid growth. Originally, they were no friends of free markets. However, when assuming power in 2003, Lula inherited and expanded upon the responsible policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Erdoğan did the same with the recovery plan of Kemal Derviş, a former technocratic minister who saved Turkey from economic disaster.

From cultures where strong charismatic personalities matter, Lula and Erdoğan have transcended their parties. At least half of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, votes are directly in support of Erdoğan. In Brazil, the victory of Dilma Rouseff, the current president, would not have been possible without Lula's active support and campaigning. Out of office since January 2011, Lula still wields enormous influence.

All along, Lula and Erdoğan clearly understood the indispensability of remaining closely connected to the streets in the age of democracy. They both proved masters of feeling the pulse of ordinary people and speaking their language. The loss of this touch exponentially increases the potential for ouster.

Whereas Erdoğan's internal reform battles are often marked by divisive rhetoric and aggressive confrontation, greater consensus guided Lula's reform policies. Ironically, Erdoğan owes much of his success to populist tactics. The rough talk and tough image proved crucial to winning votes. It reflects the reality of mass politics in the information age, which Erdoğan mastered. However, such methods often undermine the democratic process, particularly in developing systems with fragile institutions. This further underscores Erdoğan's fundamental obligation to assume a greater role as statesman.

During his two successful, and three failed, presidential campaigns, Lula was continuously subjected to harsh insults, yet he persevered. On the other hand, Erdoğan actively pursued his opponents through the courts and beyond.

During his presidency, Lula pursued a more useful alternative -- the power of effective outreach to the opposition. Doing so requires a superior intellect that ventures beyond mainstream politics. Despite his extraordinary skills, Erdoğan's populism still prevails. At this stage in his career, he should be above the political fray but struggles to do so. Seeking reconciliation during the current crisis and responsible outreach during the constitutional reform process offer Erdoğan an historic opportunity in seizing the initiative. He is already done so on the Kurdish issue but whether he actually cares to do so with political opponents will soon become evident.

As political outcasts, both Lula and Erdoğan often experienced humiliation, including prison time, which inevitably scarred their outlooks. Starting from the bottom often requires a strong will to overcome complexes resulting from such negative episodes. While Lula successfully moved on, Erdoğan remains mired in grudges to his own disadvantage and, above all, to the detriment of Turkish society. His zero-sum game approach to politics may win him elections but will ultimately undermine Turkey's long-term aspirations as a fully democratic state.