3 Jun 2013

Erdogan v Ataturk – the battle for Turkey’s political soul

Last night, in the middle of the teargas and barricades, I got chatting to a young woman carrying the paper face mask and water bottle that mark out a protester.

“He insulted Ataturk!” she said when I asked why she was calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

I can’t imagine many young British people going to the barricades for the honour of Winston Churchill or Americans for George Washington. But Turkey is different. Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was a secularist determined to – as he saw it – liberate Turkey from its conservative Muslim past. The young people on the streets of Turkey’s cities are his political grandchildren.

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Last week the prime minister (pictured above), whose AK party is rooted in political Islam, spearheaded through parliament a new law banning the sale of alcohol at night and near mosques. When challenged, he said that the original law had been conceived by “a pair of drunks”, meaning Ataturk and his successor Ismet Inonu. Well, I guess that is something of an insult. He compounded it yesterday by saying that everyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. The protesters brandished their beer bottles in defiance.

But it’s about much more than whether you can buy a beer when you want one. The law was written, debated and passed in two weeks. Similarly, massive new infrastructure projects – a third airport, another bridge over the Bosphoros, the much vaunted shopping complex in Gezi Square where the protests started, are approved with little or no public consultation. Sometimes people with title deeds to buildings that are going to be knocked down to make way for new construction only find out when the demolition team shows up.

Supporters say the prime minister’s economic record speaks for itself. Turkey has the fastest growth rate in Europe – about 3 per cent last year. But his detractors say historic Istanbul is being turned into a soulless agglomeration of shopping malls, built by the prime minister’s cronies in the construction business, and he only cares about preserving mosques.

Mr Erdogan doesn’t seem to care what the young, secular crowd think. He knows they’re not the majority. Today he called the protesters extremists, and continued to blame the weak political opposition for the trouble, rather than acknowledging any grassroots movement for change.

This morning the Istanbul stock exchange fell more than 6 per cent. It was, said the prime minister, “natural in a free market economy”.’ Then he flew off to north Africa for a four-day visit. Crisis, what crisis?

More reading –

How democratic is Turkey, by David Kennard
Dining with al-Qaeda, by Hugh Pope

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