Gareth Jenkins, Turkey Analyst wrties:
The unprecedented anti-government protests that have erupted across Turkey pose the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took office in November 2002. Although it is still too early to assess the extent of the threat to Erdoğan’s grip on power, he has been seriously weakened. At the very least, his dreams of establishing a presidential system and ruling the country singlehandedly for the next decade have suffered a fatal blow.
BACKGROUND: When Erdoğan first became prime minister, he was careful to avoid confrontation. Publicly, he insisted that he had discarded the firebrand Islamism of his youth in favor of a moderate, pluralistic conservatism. Skeptics remained unconvinced, claiming that Erdoğan was being disingenuous and merely biding his time. The previous regime had tried to squeeze a highly diverse society into a homogenized and theoretically secular, ethnic Turkish straitjacket. Their fear was that, once he felt strong enough, Erdoğan would attempt to impose a homogenized, Sunni Islamic one.
In time, the skeptics were proved right. As he consolidated his power, Erdoğan became not only more authoritarian and autocratic but also more explicit about his goal of reshaping Turkish society in accordance with his own Sunni Islamic beliefs. But, faced only with a flaccid and ineffectual opposition, Erdogan was able to dominate the political landscape, using his keen political instincts and bludgeoning rhetoric to build a strong electoral powerbase amongst the mass of the people.
In June 2011, the AKP won its third successive general election, securing 49.8 percent of the vote. Unchallenged and seemingly unchallengeable, Erdoğan started to advocate replacing Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one – and indicated that he would run as a candidate to replace President Abdullah Gül, whose term in office is due to end in August 2014, and then serve for two successive five-year terms.
In November 2011, Erdoğan underwent emergency surgery for the removal of a malignant growth in his intestines. He had a second operation in February 2012. He is now heavily medicated and subject to frequent health checks. The expectation is that his cancer will return. The prognosis is uncertain.
The impact on Erdoğan of the medication and the reminder of his own mortality remain unclear. But, over the last 15 months, he has become more impatient, irascible, authoritarian and hubristic. For someone whose ability to gauge the public mood once made him the most accomplished Turkish politician of his generation, Erdoğan has also started to look dangerously out of touch. Yet the more detached he has become, the more Erdoğan has appeared to regard himself as the embodiment of the national will – with an electorally endowed right to issue the final word on almost every issue, from the number of children that women should bear to the costumes and scripts of television soap operas and Turkey’s national drink, which he announced in April 2013 was ayran or “buttermilk”. No one else was consulted.
In early May 2013, Erdoğan announced plans to restrict sales of alcohol and ban its advertising. The resultant law was rushed through parliament in the early hours of May 24, 2013. As Turks slept, Erdoğan inserted a number of last minute changes. One of these requires any depictions of alcoholic beverages on television to be blurred on the grounds that they endanger public health by encouraging people to drink alcohol. The scientific basis of this conclusion remains unclear. However, if Erdoğan genuinely believes that viewers will imitate what they see on television screens, it is difficult to understand why he has not made it compulsory to blur depictions of guns and knives, particularly when they are shown being used to kill people.......