Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to reshape Istanbul is being challenged by an adversary more ubiquitous than any political opponent and he’s been dead for 75 years: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The centerpiece of Erdogan’s proposed development of Taksim Square in Turkey’s largest city is the rebuilding of the Topcu or Artillery Barracks at Gezi Park, where unprecedented month-long protests against the Islamist-rooted premier began. The barracks were caught up in a 1909 revolt by soldiers supporting Islamic Sharia law. It was crushed by secular-minded officers, including the man who would later call himself Ataturk as he founded the republic 14 years later in place of the Ottoman Empire. The shell-damaged building was torn down in 1939.
After three election wins, the 59-year-old Erdogan sketched an agenda for his second decade in power that would transform Turkey. It includes ending the three-decade Kurdish war, expanding the powers of the presidency, and digging a canal to create a Manhattan-type island in Istanbul. The past month’s wave of unrest, which saw city centers repeatedly engulfed in tear gas as police confronted protesters, has called into question Erdogan’s ability to put the plans into action.
At the root of the crisis is “Erdogan’s determination to accumulate all power in his hands and to stay in power as president, with quasi-dictatorial powers, until the republic’s centenary in 2023, rivaling Ataturk as a leader who shaped Turkey,” said Andrew Mango, author of seven books on modern Turkey including “Ataturk,” the biography of the national hero, in an e-mail on June 12. “Naturally authoritarian, success has turned his head.”
In the past week, Erdogan has been bringing his supporters onto the streets by the hundreds of thousands, in a series of rallies aimed at showing he represents the national will. In the capital Ankara and Istanbul, he defended a record that includes a decade of economic growth averaging more than 5 percent a year and the clearing of Turkey’s debts to the International Monetary Fund. And he attacked opposition parties, extremist groups and financial speculators for fueling the unrest. The main Istanbul stock index has dropped 15 percent this month.
While many of the mostly youthful protesters had carried Turkish flags overlaid with Ataturk’s portrait, Erdogan told crowds in the central city of Kayseri on June 21 that his supporters should stick to the plain flag. While they should hang the national symbol on windows and balconies, he said flags should conform to regulations. “I mean, there will be nothing else on them.”
Erdogan’s plans for Taksim include a mosque. Many of the demonstrators in adjoining Gezi Park, before the police drove them out on June 15, were gathered under giant pictures of Ataturk, strung up amid the trees whose threatened uprooting sparked the first protests.
“Erdogan is here to destroy what Ataturk built, but we won’t let him,” Devrim Oncu, a 22-year-old member of the small, leftist People’s Salvation Party, said in an interview in the park beneath one such banner. “We’ll fight against him and we will defeat him like Ataturk defeated his ancestors, who also wanted to continue their autocratic rule.”
Many protesters accuse the government of eroding Turkish secularism by easing curbs on Islamic-style headscarves while tightening them on alcohol, devoting more school time to religion, and jailing hundreds of officers from the secular army on charges of plotting a coup.
Erdogan’s supporters, including women wearing headscarves, often pose for pictures at Ataturk’s giant mausoleum in Ankara, pointing fingers at a Kemalist motto inscribed on a wall that reads: “Sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the nation.”
Erdogan says his government has turned that slogan into reality by extending democracy in a country where the army has pushed four administrations out of office since 1960. While a survey by MetroPOLL found a drop in support for his party since protests started, it remains 13 percentage points ahead of the main opposition party with local elections due in March.
“Although protests are expected to continue, they have not presented a serious threat to the AKP government or its electoral legitimacy,” Naz Masraff, an analyst at political-risk assessor Eurasia Group in London, said in an e-mail. The AKP “continues to be the most popular party in the country,” she said.
Erdogan’s chance of creating a presidential system by changing the constitution is “greatly diminished,” Masraff said. “He is less likely to push forward controversial laws or decisions that would trigger a near-term negative public reaction,” she said, referring to some of the Istanbul projects such as the proposal for a third Bosporus bridge.
At an Istanbul rally on June 16, while police were tear-gassing protesters a few kilometers across the city, Erdogan made a brief reference to Ataturk while dwelling longer on Adnan Menderes, premier during the 1950s. Menderes, who like Erdogan won three elections, presided over an economic boom and eased some of Ataturk’s curbs on Islam, was overthrown by the military in 1960 and executed a year later.
“They say ‘the prime minister talks too harshly’,” Erdogan said, referring to criticism of his response to protests. “Well, Adnan Menderes was a very polite, very courteous man. And they took him to the gallows.”
Erdogan also has evoked the pre-Ataturk past when Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Last month he named the planned new Bosporus bridge after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I. At a rally in Erzurum on June 23, while proscribing the Ataturk portrait on the national flag, he said the Ottoman symbol -- three crescent moons -- was acceptable for supporters to hang outside their homes.
Erdogan’s plans for the Taksim barracks are part of that emphasis on the pre-republican period. They “symbolize the clash between old and new in Turkey,” Taner Akcam, a professor of history at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in an e-mail.
Erdogan’s government has downplayed Ataturk’s legacy, with lower-key celebrations of national holidays associated with the republic’s founder, without openly confronting it. When riot police tore down protest banners in Taksim, they were careful to leave posters of Ataturk intact, and a giant one now hangs on the Ataturk Cultural Center, one of the square’s landmarks.
Erdogan, though, has said that in order to build a new opera house, he’ll tear down the whole building.
“Erdogan styles himself a patriarch who knows best,” Akcam said. “And like a domineering father, he solicits opinions but imposes his own decisions.”