THE BLOG

Reading the Fault Lines in Istanbul

LONDON--It was 45 years ago this summer that I found myself in Chicago, being bludgeoned by a police officer. Earlier that spring, my mentor--German social philosopher Erich Fromm--had convinced me that after two decades as a non-political entrepreneur, it was time for me to get involved. He persuaded me to make a political contribution to the Democrats' anti-Vietnam War darling, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, which earned me an invitation to the 1968 Democratic Convention, where I booked a room at Chicago's Hilton Hotel. In the early evening hours of August 28th, I walked out onto the sidewalk, only to be rendered speechless by the sight of police officers beating protesters across the street, at Grant Park. Intervening to stop one particularly vicious volley, I stepped between a protester and an officer, where I met the business end of his billy club.

It was later reported that so much tear gas was used that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, felt its effects while standing in his Hilton shower--news to millions of Americans convinced that he never actually got off his derriere to protest while riots raged below him. Humphrey, who went on to lose the election, was not the only politician affected by riots in 1968. In France, President Charles de Gaulle was the focus of widespread demonstrations, sparked by young Parisians who resented his heavy-handed authoritarian style. While his party recovered nicely--expanding its majority in a hastily-called June election--de Gaulle never did. Recognizing that he had split the country, which saw him as out of touch, the old general resigned the presidency in a moment of grace less than a year later.

For the past month, echoes of both 1968 riots have played out for the world to see on the streets of 78 Turkish cities. Motivated by de Gaulle-like resentment over the heavy-handed authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, young Turkish protesters have been battered by Chicago-like brutality metered out by Erdogan's riot police. But the comparisons stop there: there's a better chance of Humphrey's ghost returning to rule Turkey than the belligerent Erdogan exhibiting any kind of grace--de Gaullian or otherwise--and giving up power. Instead, he is moving headlong into his plan to re-write Turkey's constitution, seeking to invest the office of the presidency with unprecedented power, just in time for the term-limited prime minister to run in Turkey's 2014 presidential election.

But the riots have revealed three enormous fault-lines in Turkey--one economic, one religious and one political--that could swallow Erdogan's mammoth ambitions.

First, there is the economy--which, by all accounts, is Erdogan's great strength. Taking over a limp economy in 2002, the prime minister has overseen explosive growth that has averaged 5% each year, with millions of Turks moving into the middle class. To admirers, Erdogan has been successful, as economist Jeffrey Sachs writes, by "sticking to the basics: rebuilding the banking sector, getting the budget under control and investing where it counts."

But up close, the miracle is dependent on something else: foreign investors. Turkey's external debt has, as Turkish scholar İpek Kısmet Bell puts it, "ballooned to record levels," reaching "the equivalent of 51% of the country's GDP." In fact, for a one-year period ending in March, foreign investors covered a shocking 94 percent of the country's current account deficit. The problem, as the Economist recently put it, is that the prime minister's actions "appear to be spooking investors at a time when the economic outlook has already darkened." Erdogan's choice to publicly lash out at financiers several weeks ago while threatening to "throttle" speculators was seen as "an especially foolish moment."

And the worst may be yet to come. As the U.S. and EU restart talks over an historic free trade agreement that could propel EU member economies--bringing an estimated $150 billion boon each year--non-members like Turkey could be on the outside, looking in. With German chancellor Angela Merkel saying she was "shocked" and "appalled" by the recent crackdowns, it is increasingly clear that Turkey won't likely be invited to join the EU as long as Erdogan is in power. For devout Anatolian entrepreneurs, who have used Turkey's customs union with the EU to turn the region into a manufacturing hub, Erdogan's belligerence could spell disaster. As scholar Ben Judah puts it, "Why make things in Ankara when you can do so in a poorer EU state with access to the U.S.?"

Then, there is the religious fault line. The most powerful religious community in Turkey, the followers of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, now oppose the prime minister. "It is hard to overstate how dramatic this break is," says Turkish scholar Halil Karaveli. "Gulen's group was Erdogan's main ally in his power struggle against the . . . state establishment." The prime minister's heavy-handed authoritarian efforts to derail secularism and turn himself into a modern-day Sultan didn't just spark the riots; it earned a rebuke from Gulen, who warned against the arrogance of power, saying "even if a person is a believer, they can morally be a pharaoh." Erdogan's efforts to rewrite the Constitution, putting all powers in a supreme president while minimizing the role of other government leaders, hasn't set well with the AKP Party's Islamist leaders even before the riots. While the AKP remains the overwhelming favorite to win next year's election, Gulen could easily convince AKP leaders to embrace another candidate.

And there sits the political fault line: while the bullying Erdogan has imploded the past month, the stock of mild-mannered Turkish President Abdullah Gul--who publicly urged dialogue with demonstrators while stating "democracy is not just about voting"--has risen dramatically. It's possible that the student demonstrations will lead to an organized political movement that produces its own candidate for president in 2014. But if that unlikely scenario doesn't come true, the Islamist Gul is best positioned to appeal to both religious conservatives put off by Erdogan's megalomania and liberals eager to maintain Turkey's secular tradition. Several polls, in fact, already put Gul ahead of Erdogan for President, which was unimaginable just two months ago.

What should the U.S. do with these fault lines? Leverage them to keep Turkey secular. Offer to intervene on Turkey's behalf with the EU. Make Turkey part of the free-trade discussion. Reassure investors that Turkey is politically stable. And quietly work to let Gulen, his followers and the AKP know that if Turkey wants to maintain its good standing with the United States, Gul is the man.

If Erdogan had even a touch of de Gaulle's grace and enlightened self-interest 45 years ago, things might be different. But as the defiant prime minister vowed in a fiery speech to his supporters just two weeks ago, "I'm sorry . . . but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change." And that's exactly the problem.

The author is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC. This is a personal comment.

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