The rest of the world’s attention was turned elsewhere late Sunday, mostly to Iraq and Gaza, but in Turkey all eyes were on the resounding triumph of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who became the nation’s first directly elected president. Erdogan took 52 percent of the vote, some 13 points more than his nearest rival, thus obviating the need for a second round.
As joyous crowds filled the main streets of the capital, Ankara, Erdogan told them: “Today is a new day, a milestone for Turkey, the birthday of Turkey, of its rebirth from the ashes.”
The joy of his supporters was contrasted by the bitterness of his opponents, who warn of an authoritarian trend and point to divisions in Turkish society which they say Erdogan has manipulated and magnified to further his political agenda. They also accuse him of unfair tactics, such as using government resources for his campaign.
The criticism appears warranted. The state-controlled media undoubtedly favored the incumbent prime minister. Over two days in July, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave Erdogan a whopping 533 minutes of airtime, compared with three minutes and 24 seconds for the leading opposition candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and a fleeting 45 seconds for Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas.
His heavy-handed suppression of street protests against his government in which eight people, including one young boy, were killed, along with accusations of high-level corruption, have drawn comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Critics warn that the fresh victory at the polls will embolden Erdogan to espouse an increasingly autocratic style. His stated intention to transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a powerful executive one fuels their anxiety.
As much as we, too, are preoccupied with the fearsome turbulence in the Mideast, these developments in Turkey cannot but rivet our attention, as well.
International media coverage made little mention of Erdogan’s hostile stance toward Israel. In recent speeches, he has decried Israel’s vigorous campaign of self-defense against Gazan terrorists. Nor was this mere election rhetoric. Since Operation Pillar of Defense in 2008, Erdogan has presided over the dismantling of the once-warm political and military alliance with Israel.
But while there is cause for concern, it seems unduly alarmist to treat the election outcome as the demise of Turkish democracy. To be sure, it was a rough campaign, but what democracy has not known its rough campaigns, with the bitter outcries and accusations of the defeated?
The course he has steered for Turkey — nationalist, Islamist, pro-Palestinian — is certainly not one that we would have chosen. But thus far, Erdogan has shown himself to be a strongman, not a madman.
While he has led his country from strict secularism to official embrace of Islam, he has done so within the framework of law and democracy, and without the terrible brutality and upheaval seen elsewhere in the region.
Indeed, Erdogan’s popularity is in large part well deserved. The average Turkish citizen does not benefit from the rhetoric of “Free Gaza,” but he has benefited from the economic strides of recent years.
A very short time ago, Turkey was despised by many western Europeans as little more than a pool of cheap labor for their more advanced societies. Today, much of Erdogan’s support comes from a burgeoning middle class, whose incomes have tripled to $10,000 per capita under his reign. Now the world’s 15th largest economy, it can show off gleaming towers and new hotels, as well as more hospitals and schools.
Another important sign of progress was the participation of an ethnic Kurd in the election. Demirtas took 9.7 percent of the vote, a result that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago in the midst of a Kurdish rebellion. Despite charges that Erdogan represents a divisive force, it has been under his leadership that a peace process has been ongoing with the Kurdish PKK party.
The Kurds and other minorities may not be getting everything they want, and they may not be happy with the prospects of an Erdogan presidency. But this has to be contrasted with a decades-long conflict with the Kurds that killed 40,000 people.
While Erdogan has gone out of his way in taking the Palestinian side against Israel, he has pledged that he has nothing against the Jewish community in Turkey and that no harm will come to them from his government.
So far, this has been the case. The Turkish leader is an Islamist with deep feelings. But he is also a pragmatic politician who seeks both his own success and that of his countrymen.
We hope that in the coming years the pragmatic side of Tayyip Erdogan will prevail, for the good of all concerned.