What in the world is going on in Turkey?

Turkey demosFour weeks ago a small group of environmentally-minded Turks staged a demonstration, or an occupation, of tiny Gezi park in Istanbul, where the government had stated its intent to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks to house a shopping mall.

The government responded by attacking the protesters violently with water cannon and tear gas. The disproportionate attack on the peaceful protesters crystallized widespread hostility to the government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdoğan (pronounced ER-duh-wan). The protests grew and spread all over Turkey, and everywhere the protesters were met by violent police action. So far five have died, and the protests have died down.

Erdoğan blames the trouble on outsiders, including CNN and the “interest lobby,” and has called out his supporters into massive counter demonstrations.

Erdoğan was first elected to head the government in 2002, with 34% of the vote. He was reelected in 2007 with 46%, and again in 2011 with just under 50% of the votes cast. He is a practicing Muslim—rare for a Turkish leader—and has steadily moved to make Turkish society more congenial to pious Muslims. He wants to amend the Constitution to allow women to wear headscarves in public buildings (now forbidden), and has had laws passed that allow early religious instruction in elementary school, limit the sale of alcohol, and has proposed bans on abortion and even on kissing in public.

Some fear Erdoğan’s goal is to introduce Sharia law, a la Iran or Saudi Arabia, while others (including The Economist) call him a “moderate Islamist” and believe his intent is simply to eliminate the anti-religious elements of Turkish law introduced by Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey and a fervent anti-religionist.

His record as a (small-d) democrat is mixed. On the plus side he has removed the military from its dominant position in Turkish politics and has opened up and reformed the economy. On the minus side he has imprisoned more journalists and academics than China, and has moved to crush the dissent that started over a few trees and now has spread to the 50% who didn’t vote for him.

Now he has adopted the posture that anybody who opposes him is a tool of foreign anti-Turkish interests, and has labeled his opponents lootersor worse. Pro-government newspapers have even depicted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has criticized the draconian reaction to the protests, in Nazi garb.

Sadly there is no opposition party that has a chance to oust Erdoğan’s party in next year’s election. The best hope for relief from his authoritarian rule is in his own party: party rules forbid his standing for a fourth term. He wants instead to run for President and to change the Constitution to a Presidential system from the current parliamentary system. That would give him even more power than he has now.

The only thing that could stand in his way is if President Abdullah Gul decided to run for reelection, or if Erdoğan’s own megalomania scares his own party half as much as it scares his opponents and Turkey’s friends.

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