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Erdogan: The boy bread vendor who changed Turkey

Source : Ece Toksabay & Ibon Villelebeitia | Reuters
ISTANBUL | 09 Jun 2011

When Tayyip Erdogan sold bread rolls as a boy on the old streets of Istanbul, Turkey was a country caught in a cycle of army coups. It languished on the fringes of Europe. Pious Turks were the underdogs of society.

As Erdogan moves toward his second decade as prime minister, Turkey could not look more different.

It has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it is a European Union candidate and a regional heavyweight, and religious Turks have displaced the secularist elite from power.

An autocrat and a dangerous Islamist to his enemies, a hero and a man of the people to his admirers, Erdogan has transformed this Muslim democracy since his AK Party swept to power in 2002, on a scale unseen since Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923 out of the ruins of a defeated Ottoman Empire.

Opinion polls show Erdogan, 57, will comfortably win a third term of single-party rule in an election on June 12.

While the only uncertainty at the ballot box is Erdogan’s margin of victory, the outcome will determine the future of this complicated country of 74 million people.

Erdogan has said that if AK wins he will rewrite Turkey’s constitution, drafted after a military coup in 1980, and there is speculation his next step could be to elevate himself to the presidency under a strengthened presidential system.

“Erdogan wants to be remembered as the man who made Turkey a global power,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“And he wants to prove to the world that you can be a global player and a Muslim at the same time,” Barkey said.

A hot-tempered but charismatic politician, Erdogan has taken risks as he has challenged the secularist military and the judiciary, while power has shifted from the Westernized, urban elites to a new class of observant Muslims from the heartland.

Market-friendly reforms pushed by his socially conservative AK have tripled Turkey’s per capita income in the last eight years. Bailout programs to clean up financial meltdowns and banking collapses are now a thing of the past.

Erdogan, who does not drink or smoke and is known for chastising his aides when he catches them smoking, has also changed Turkey’s place in the world. A long-time NATO member and US ally, Turkey has deepened ties with the Middle East, including Iran, and opened new markets in Asia and Africa.

Fears by secularists that AK, which evolved from banned Islamist movements, would turn Turkey into Iran have not materialized and investors have rewarded Erdogan’s pragmatism.

His brief stay in prison for Islamist agitation when he was mayor of Istanbul came during his more ardent days.

But despite this success story there are concerns about Turkey’s future.

Critics accuse Erdogan of showing authoritarian tendencies and say he has accumulated too much power. Some fret a two-thirds AK majority would allow Erdogan to pass unilateral constitutional changes and give free rein to a man known for disliking dissent and used to having his way.

The weakness of opposition parties, their continued disarray following the 2002 rout that first brought AK to power, only adds to the impression of Erdogan’s complete domination.

If elected, Erdogan would not be allowed to run for a fourth term. But campaign materials intimate that he plans to remain on the political scene well beyond then; in posters and brochures he strikes an unsmiling, paternal pose reminiscent of Turkey’s revered founder Ataturk, and uses the slogan “Objective 2023” — the 100th anniversary of Turkey’s foundation.

“Turkey is a more self-confident country with high growth, a banking sector and public finances looking good, with a consumer and housing boom, and young demographics, but there is clearly a concern about concentration of power,” Timothy Ash, a London-based analyst from Royal Bank of Scotland, told Reuters.

The son of a boat captain from the Black Sea, Erdogan migrated as a child to Istanbul, where biographers say he sold bread rolls and lemonade to help pay for his religious school.

Biographers say Erdogan’s combative and populist traits can be traced to the idiosyncracies of Kasimpasa, an old Istanbul neighborhood made up of workers from the countryside and shopkeepers, where men take pride in their swaggering ways.

In Kasimpasa’s steep, narrow streets, Erdogan is still seen as one of them. Tea houses and shops display his portraits, some on the campaign trail and others dressed in soccer attire from his days as a semi-professional player, and neighbors speak respectfully of “Basbakanimiz” (our prime minister).

“He makes us feel proud,” said Adnan Savas, 45, who runs a kebab shop. “You can come from Kasimpasa and become a prime minister so he encourages our children to work hard. You can be a good Muslim, preserve your values, and be very successful.”

A Reuters reporter who wandered into Kasimpasa one recent afternoon witnessed a shooting in broad daylight: A crowd gathered around a man lying wounded on the ground as police chased down and arrested his assailant.

“We are used to it: stabbings, fist-fights, shootings. People from Kasimpasa are actually very good inside, but they happen to be quick-tempered,” said waiter Elif Gorgulu.

“They are very protective of their honor and can’t take insults calmly. You have to watch your back around here.”

Although he is a divisive figure, even Erdogan’s most militant enemies would contend he is force to be reckoned with.

Microphone in hand and pacing the stage at rallies of enthusiastic supporters, Erdogan knows how to work a crowd.

He quotes local religious philosophers, slams his enemies as “dark forces” resisting change, lists public works completed under his government and adorns his speeches with streetwise vernacular the secular elite in the capital Ankara frowns upon.

Lately, he has been reciting the lyrics of a popular Turkish folk song to frenzied audiences who roar the words back to him as if in a declaration of love.

“We walked together on this path, we got wet together under this rain, now whenever I listen to a song, everything reminds me of you,” Erdogan and the crowd chant at each other.

“He is a political animal, but the drawback is that he has become the unique decision maker in the country,” said Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

“The presidential system looks like a very autocratic idea. He would like to consolidate his power with more power, but without checks and balances. Turkey might face serious challenges in the future if we go down that path.”

Many Turks respect Erdogan for restoring stability in a country plagued by decades of chaotic coalitions, coups and failed international financial bailouts, and for giving them confidence in their country.

“He is still in a way the soccer player from Kasimpasa and that is part of Turkey’s success. His story is that upward mobility can happen in Turkey,” Barkey said.


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