The more Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted party run against Turkey’s once-dominant authority of secular judges and generals, the more he is looking like the country’s most influential leader since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Where Ataturk inspired his supporters -- in Anatolia’s mostly Muslim interior -- to oust the Greeks, British and French from the remnants of the defeated Ottoman Empire, Erdogan is wresting power from the institutions that have seen themselves as guardians of Ataturk’s legacy since his death in 1938.
After winning a referendum on Sept. 12 giving the government more influence over the country’s courts and army, Erdogan says he wants to draft a new Turkish constitution. The man appointed to lead that push, Burhan Kuzu, is an advocate of a U.S.-style presidential system, which Erdogan also supports.
“The amount of change under Erdogan is transformational,” said Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The presidential model “is something that the opponents of Erdogan are posing as a threat to Turkey: An autocratic system is on the rise, ‘This guy is dangerous,’” he said.
At the same time, “there are fewer journalists in jail, more freedom of expression,” Taspinar said. “It’s a richer and freer country.”
Erdogan, 56, would become Turkey’s first non-military leader to write a new constitution since Ataturk in 1924. Ataturk presented the statute after defeating an invading Greek army, expelling British and French occupying forces, sending the remnants of the ruling Ottoman family into exile, abolishing the centuries-old title of Islamic Caliph that they held, and declaring his new state a secular republic.
Washington and Lincoln
“Ataturk won a war,” Taspinar said. “He was George Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one.”
Ataturk introduced an alphabet based on Latin script to replace the Arabic one. He also promoted women’s rights, brought religious education under state control and encouraged Turks to wear European styles of dress, through such means as executing those who refused.
His portrait appears on the wall of every Turkish government office and many corporate ones. More than 70 years after his death, it remains a criminal offense to insult his memory.
A presidential bid by Erdogan would fuel charges leveled at the premier by opposition leaders such as Gursel Tekin, deputy head of the Republican People’s Party. They say the premier is reshaping Turkey in line with his Islamic religious beliefs, eroding the secular structures created by Ataturk.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development, or Ak, Party have polarized the country, showing he isn’t the right leader to draw up a new constitution whose goal should be to unite it, Tekin said in an interview.
“Something as important as a constitution has to be done with the agreement and support of the people,” he said on Sept. 22 in Ankara. “The Ak Party doesn’t behave like that. They make it in the kitchen, and then serve it to you and dictate that you eat it.”
Ataturk frequently described his goal as raising Turkey to “the level of modern civilization.” Under Erdogan, the nation is wealthier than ever and the premier says he has expanded Turkey’s influence in the region, bolstered the powers of civil authorities over the army and brought human rights closer to European Union standards.
His government has broken records for attracting foreign investment and curbing inflation. Annual economic growth in the first five years of Ak Party rule, before the global crisis began to curb output in 2008, averaged 7 percent.
Companies such as U.K. telecommunications operator Vodafone Group Plc and New York-based Citigroup Inc. helped fuel the boom, buying Turkish units amid a surge in demand created by lower borrowing costs. Annualized economic growth rates exceeded 10 percent in each of the first two quarters this year and the ISE-100 stock index has risen more than 24 percent.
Kuzu, speaking in a Sept. 21 interview in an Istanbul patisserie, compared the performance with a historical pattern of spurts in development under Prime Ministers Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, Suleyman Demirel in the 1960s, and Turgut Ozal -- to whom Kuzu served as an adviser -- in the 1980s.
The advances weren’t sustained because those single-party governments were either ousted by generals, or lost their majorities and were replaced by unstable and spendthrift coalitions, Kuzu said. A presidential system can help avoid a relapse into that kind of boom-and-bust cycle, he said.
“Growth rates were high in those periods,” Kuzu said. “It’s not because these men were somehow superhuman. I think it’s because they were in power on their own.”
Single-party administrations have governed for about 30 years since 1950 when Turkey first allowed multi-party elections, and multi-party coalitions or regimes headed by the army led for other three decades.
The economy grew at an average annual rate of 5.8 percent under the former type of rule and 3.8 percent under the latter, according to calculations based on statistics from the State Planning Organization. That’s a gap of almost $14 billion a year at current levels of gross domestic product.
Single-party governments also have initiated changes in foreign policy. Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under Menderes, applied to enter the EU under Ozal and started formal membership talks with the bloc during Erdogan’s first term in office in 2005.
Erdogan’s foreign policy since that landmark has sometimes dismayed Turkey’s Western allies. He signed energy agreements with Iran, brokered a nuclear fuel deal with the Islamic republic that was criticized by the U.S., weakened Turkey’s decades-old security alliance with Israel by attacking its policies toward Palestinians and invited Islamist leaders from Hamas and Sudan to Ankara.
At home, Erdogan sought to criminalize adultery and lift a ban on Islamic headscarves at universities. The first measure was abandoned after EU criticism and the second was blocked by courts. The constitutional changes approved this month allow civil trials for military personnel and make it harder for the army to expel officers suspected of Islamism.
Erdogan can point to an electoral mandate for his policies that rivals any of his predecessors. The Ak Party was re-elected in 2007 with 47 percent of the vote, the biggest share for any party since 1965. Since coming to power, the party has won two nationwide local elections and two popular votes on amending the constitution.
Erdogan rejects charges that he has departed from Ataturk’s secular vision and sought to impose Islamic values, saying that accusation has been leveled at him throughout his career, without supporting evidence.
“It’s as if the Ak Party hasn’t been in power for eight years,” he told a party meeting in Ankara on Sept. 24, speaking against a backdrop of giant pictures of himself and Ataturk. “They’re still trying to play the same old game.”
Without backing from competing parties for a new constitution, Erdogan probably would be forced to put the text to an “extremely polarizing” referendum, in which opponents would campaign against creating on the dangers of dictatorship and Islamism under an Erdogan presidency, Taspinar said.
“There’s a power struggle in Turkey between the old elite and the new elite, and the old elite are scaremongering to say that a civil war is coming and that Erdogan will turn Turkey into Iran,” he said. “People who say he’s the most significant leader since Ataturk aren’t saying it in a praiseful way. They say it in the sense of, ‘Don’t you realize the danger? Can’t you see how powerful this guy is becoming?’”
The president, who now has largely ceremonial powers, will be chosen by popular election for the first time 1as early as 2012 under a change passed by Erdogan’s government and approved in a referendum three years ago. Previous presidents were chosen by a parliamentary vote. Abdullah Gul, the current incumbent and longtime Erdogan ally, said this month that any increase in presidential powers should be managed carefully to lessen fears of autocracy.
“What we’re going to get is a prolonged discussion, with the prime minister taking the lead,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If the economy holds up, he is clearly the frontrunner.”
Erdogan’s success in changing the constitution and the political system would cement his legacy as one of two elected leaders since Ataturk who have done most to change Turkey, according to Aliriza and Taspinar. The other they cite is Ozal, who led Turkey’s transformation in the 1980s into a market-based economy open to international investment and competition.
Erdogan’s achievements will exceed Ozal’s assuming he can push through a new constitution, Kuzu said.
“For the president to be elected by the public, for the civil-military balance to be improved, these are all things that Ozal wanted,” he said. “But we’re the ones who were able to achieve them.”