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Jun 7, 2013 | 19:04 GMT

Turkey: The Prime Minister's Long-Term Political Challenge

Turkey: The Prime Minister's Long-Term Political Challenge
(Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Summary

June 7 marked a full week since the beginning of violent clashes in Turkey between the police and anti-government protesters of various political stripes. Though the weekend still has the potential to produce larger turnouts, the overall situation on the streets does not point to a steadily building protest movement that would overwhelm the government and security forces' ability to manage the situation. But even as the streets show early signs of calm, Erdogan is by no means in the clear, since he will likely face a growing political challenge from within his own camp over the longer term.

Stratfor's early caution regarding maintaining strict perspective on the size, scope and demographic makeup of the protests is proving correct. Though dissent against Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party is rising overall, Erdogan currently lacks a formidable political competitor and still carries substantial support across the country. The response from the Justice and Development Party that Stratfor was watching for materialized June 6 when party supporters in the Black Sea port city of Rize, Erdogan's hometown, attacked a group of anti-government protesters. The government also kept Istanbul Metro lines open until 4 a.m. for thousands of Justice and Development Party supporters to welcome Erdogan to the city's Ataturk International Airport, where he delivered yet another defiant speech at 2 a.m. The well-organized rally also involved supporters transported in on buses and the use of city parks near the airport as staging areas. 

Meanwhile, a group of left-wing and secularist opposition protesters cordoned off a section of Taksim Square on June 7 to enable demonstrators to conspicuously engage in Friday prayers. This act implicitly challenged the narrative that secular Kemalists are using the Taksim protests to attack the ruling party's conservative values.

Turkey's Business Community

Thus far, Turkey's influential business associations have kept their distance from the protests. Though several unions have participated in the demonstrations, others have struck a much more cautious line out of fear of provoking a government response. The case of Ergun Ozen, the general manager of Turkey's Garanti Bank, will be important to watch for signs of such backlash. The bank, Turkey's second-largest, is owned by the Dogus Group, a company that also owns the NTV news channel. Early on, NTV refrained from covering the protests, drawing ire from protesters who then used social media to encourage people to close their accounts with Garanti Bank. (Ozen has estimated that some $19.5 million of the bank's $50.1 billion in deposits have been withdrawn, while 1,500 out of the banks' 8.5 million credit card holders have canceled their cards.)

Ozen's facetious declaration that he too is one of the "street thugs" who Erdogan blamed for the unrest drove the prime minister to accuse bankers of taking part in a conspiracy against the government. Erdogan said: "If a general manager of a bank voices support for those organizing this vandalism, he will find us standing against him." An earlier and similarly inflammatory speech by Erdogan was met with a more than 7 percent drop in Turkey's main stock index, the BIST 100, prompting Erdogan to accuse "interest rate lobbies" of speculating in the market.

Turkey's business community will continue to toe a cautious line as Erdogan tries to regain control of the situation by threatening consequences for dissent. But even though Erdogan can still count on millions of supporters who have pinned their futures to the success of the Justice and Development Party, the events of the past week have exposed a number of fault lines within his broader support base. Though the ruling party does not currently face a credible competitor, an alternative is likely to develop in time.

Possible Competitors

Several liberal members of the Justice and Development Party who have fallen in and out of favor with Erdogan, or who have been purged altogether, are now re-emerging. These include individuals such as former prominent Justice and Development Party parliamentarian Suat Kiniklioglu and Abdullaatif Sener, a party founder who has publicly accused Erdogan's government of consuming the party's legitimacy.

Outside Justice and Development Party circles, there is the powerful Gulen movement, an influential religious community named for its leader, Imam Fethullah Gulen. In his typically veiled comments, Gulen himself has condemned protesters who have resorted to violence and strongly criticized the government's leadership style. The main Gulenist media outlets, Zaman and Today's Zaman, have served as a highly vocal platform for criticisms against Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party over the past week.

Should an alternative party form, it would likely have the backing of Gulen's widespread and influential media and business networks. Such an alternative would take time to develop and thus may not be prepared to contest the 2014 presidential and 2015 general elections. However, Erdogan is unlikely to garner enough votes this year to proceed with an ambitious agenda to transform Turkey from a parliamentarian system to a presidential one, which would allow the prime minister to run for president in 2014. (Erdogan's current term expires in 2015.) 

The past week has also exposed the limits of Erdogan's oft-touted charisma. His defiance in speeches has worked well in the past, and he has been seen as the firebrand leader from the East with a foot in the West with the guts to stand up to Israel, the United States and Europe. His brusqueness, combined with his campaign for a more Islamist-oriented Turkey, generated an aura of machismo reflected recently in Turkey's most popular soap opera series, which chronicles the life of revered Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But Erdogan's reputation for inflammatory remarks is now grating on many of his own supporters, who fear he has gone a step too far.

In 2009, thousands of supporters gave Erdogan a hero's welcome at Istanbul's international airport after his infamous outburst at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres over Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. A large banner in the crowd at that time read, "You Will Never Walk Alone." Four years later, Erdogan's supporters have kept their promise. Throngs of his fans may have returned to the airport June 7 to demonstrate their solidarity with Erdogan. But that post-Davos jubilance has been replaced with a mood of defiance and a nervous glance at the future.

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