Turkey’s mood is changing


MANY Turks are worried and angry. Their country seems to be changing for the worse. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arguably their most remarkable politician since the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is no longer the sure-footed leader who took power 17 years ago. The man who dared to make peace with Kurdish rebels, who restored language, cultural and political rights to this significant majority, who promised an inclusive politics led by his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and who oversaw a boom in overseas investment and major infrastructural projects, looks increasingly beleaguered and out of ideas.

The well-educated middle classes welcomed his arrival after years of venal and bickering politics. They remembered his four years to 1998 as an impressive mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan ran the country’s major commercial city efficiently. Corruption which has disfigured local politics largely disappeared. But that bourgeois support has melted away as Erdogan’s rule has decayed into the same corruption, nepotism and political fixes against which the man himself once set his face.

Too long in power, rattling round his grandiose one thousand-room presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan has become increasingly intolerant of dissent, even among his once-trusted political allies. By cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and buying Moscow’s missiles, he has effectively trashed Turkey’s NATO membership and its relations with the United States. By choosing to open Turkey as a refuge for the Muslim Brotherhood, the political front for fundamentalist terrorism, he has alienated much of the Arab world that has been battling this menace. And by scrapping his deal with the Kurds, clamping down on their elected politicians and muzzling and intimidating press and media, the Erdogan liberal political vision has been abandoned.

He is running a regime based on distrust and threat. This is undermining the confidence of many, not least supporters of his own AKP. Membership numbers have collapsed, suggesting that there may no longer be enough volunteers to try and get the vote out at the next election, in 2023. Erdogan has enjoyed genuine mass popularity. But this is ebbing in the face of rising prices and falling living standards, the results of long-term financial mismanagement and gross government over-spending.

That the mood among his typical working-class supporters turning febrile is evidenced by the recent assaults on migrants. Though a number of nationalities, including Afghans and Pakistanis have been caught up in street violence, most of the mob violence has been directed against Syrians. Turkey has given refuge to some 3.5 million refugees from the Assad dictatorship’s attempt to crush its own people. Though the majority still live in camps, tens of thousands have made their way to big cities where they have set up small businesses, catering as much as anything for their own people.

In Adana in the south, a rumor that a Syrian had tried to rape an 11 year-old Turkish girl led to local rioting and looting of Syrian-owned businesses. Police later said they were holding a Turkish suspect for the crime. Likewise further anti-Syrian riots in Istanbul were apparently triggered by a rude comment made by a migrant boy. This mass disorder is deplorable in itself but it also betrays rising tension among Turks who are no longer certain of where Erdogan is leading them.