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Erdogan losing his touch
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 11 - 09 - 2013

Even six months ago, the international reputation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could hardly have been higher.
His moderate Islamic government in its third term of office was overseeing a major economic boom. Foreign investment was pouring into a country which more than 30 years after it first applied now had, certainly on economic terms, an overwhelming case to become a member of the European Union.
Moreover, not only had Erdogan apparently broken the traditional political influence of the Turkish military, but he appeared to have finally brokered a real deal with the terrorist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) ending a conflict of three decades in which tens of thousands had died. And to cap it all, Istanbul was widely seen as the front-runner to host the 2020 Olympics.
Then the Istanbul of which Erdogan used to be mayor decided to build on the only extensive piece of parkland in the city center, and everything changed. A peaceful protest which involved demonstrators occupying the threatened Gezi Park ended in two kinds of violence.
The first was that used by police sent in to break up the protest and smash down barricades thrown up by the protestors. Turkey's police have never been renowned for their softly-softly approach, and their regular and unpunished violations of people's human rights have been one of the arguments against the country's candidacy for EU membership.
It was, however, the second sort of violence that stood out - the violent language with which Erdogan damned the protestors as vandals, extremists and part of an international conspiracy to undermine Turkey. The vehemence of such words gave the strongest impression that Erdogan, once widely-respected for his political savvy, no longer had such judgement, perhaps because he had spent too long in power and could no longer brook any opposition.
It is likely that the massive overreaction of the government and of the police at its command did more than anything else to convince the International Olympic Committee to review its reported enthusiasm for Istanbul and instead award the Games to Tokyo.
Now, on top of the troubles that have hit the economy, in part because of outside forces affecting all emerging markets which are beyond the control of the Turkish government, another of Erdogan's much-lauded achievements is coming unravelled.
The settlement with the PKK must now be in serious doubt, as the Kurds have stopped the withdrawal of their fighters from southeastern Turkey into Iraq. They are protesting the slow implementation of a package of laws that would have boosted Kurdish cultural and political rights - more seats in parliament and Kurdish language teaching in certain schools - as well as delays in releasing thousands of Kurdish prisoners. The government for its part is maintaining that the PKK has not been moving its fighters out of the country as quickly as agreed. Whoever is right, the fact remains that the deal is breaking down with the only positive factor being that the PKK says that it will continue to abide by the ceasefire.
Erdogan remains popular among Turkish voters, although many supporters became deeply uneasy at his excessive response to the Gezi Park protest.
His increasingly autocratic methods do not promise well for a country where, as he seemed to understand in his early years in power, it remains important to look for some sort of consensus rather than drive home policies in an overbearing and uncompromising manner.

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