from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Keep Calm, Erdogan

June 4, 2013

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This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com on Monday, June 3, 2013. 

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, he did what successful big city mayors do -- he made life a little easier for the millions of residents of his beautiful, maddening megalopolis. Erdogan cleaned up the garbage in the streets, unknotted traffic, and literally cleared the air by introducing environmentally friendlier public transportation. Always one for grand ambitions, during his tenure at City Hall the future prime minister made a now often repeated statement to a journalist from the daily Milliyet, “Democracy,” he declared, “is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

These stories go a long way toward explaining the demonstrations against Turkey’s prime minister over the past several days. Erdogan, who hails from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Istanbul, has both an innate sense of what makes average Turks tick and an oddly instrumental view of democracy. He never indicated the “destination” toward which he thought Turkey’s democracy should be headed. But 15 years later, many Turks have drawn the conclusion that Erdogan had always intended to step off the tram as soon he had accumulated unrivaled power.

The prime minister’s party, Justice and Development (AKP), was founded in August 2001 after young reformists broke from the old guard of Turkey’s Islamist movement. Even then, Erdogan was a first among equals, but he had important associates, especially Abdullah Gul, who now occupies the presidential palace and remains officially above politics. Yet, in time, Erdogan became the party and the party became him.

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