Erdogan Strives to Make His Mark on Turkey's History

By Yeginsu, Ceylan | International New York Times, June 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

Erdogan Strives to Make His Mark on Turkey's History


Yeginsu, Ceylan, International New York Times


An election on Sunday will be largely a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and on his plans to concentrate more power in the presidency.

There were fighter jets racing across the Istanbul sky, painting the Turkish flag with ribbons of colored smoke, and a military band with nearly 600 musicians marched below. Hundreds of thousands of people looked on, and the event quickly took on the fervor of a religiously infused political rally.

The event being celebrated so lavishly on Saturday was 562 years in the past, the Ottoman conquest of what was then Constantinople. But its themes of conquest, piety and Ottoman nostalgia made the celebration a powerful metaphor, highlighting the triumphs and ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Never mind that when Turkish voters choose a new Parliament on Sunday, Mr. Erdogan will not be on the ballot. The election will still be largely a referendum on him, and on his plans to transform Turkey's Constitution and concentrate more power in an executive presidency. A big victory would also mark a new milestone in Mr. Erdogan's drive to eclipse Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in the history books as the country's pre-eminent figure.

To many of his supporters, Mr. Erdogan already has.

"I really just came here to show my support for Erdogan, my tall man," said Fatma Sahin, 32, as she waved a white Erdogan flag at the rally. "He doesn't just deserve the presidency; he deserves to be king."

Like much of what happens in Turkey, the election campaign was dominated by Mr. Erdogan's outsize personality. Though the presidency is supposed to be a largely ceremonial post, removed from partisan politics, Mr. Erdogan campaigned aggressively for his Islamist Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, A.K.P.

Mr. Erdogan's power has seemed only to grow in the presidency, as he consolidated his grip on the judiciary, tightened restrictions on the media and moved into an immense new presidential palace. He has been compared to Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who similarly dominated his country's politics from both the offices of prime minister and president.

At the rally on Saturday, Mr. Erdogan gave a characteristically passionate performance, and almost instantly upstaged Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Although the Turkish Constitution makes the prime minister and not the president the country's most powerful official, Mr. Davutoglu delivered only a short speech.

Mr. Erdogan, on the other hand, spoke expansively about how Turkey had been transformed by his party's 12-year rule: upending of the old secular order, empowering the religious masses and pushing the army from politics.

"To reverse this nation's ill fate for 12 years is a conquest," Mr. Erdogan told the jubilant crowd. "To successfully pass this turning point on the way to a new Turkey is a conquest."

And then, referring to the coming election, he added: "God willing, June 7 will be a conquest."

Mr. Erdogan was once lauded as a reformer for pushing for minority rights, peace with Turkey's restive Kurds, an overhaul of the economy and membership in the European Union.

But he has come under increasing criticism for what many describe as a turn toward authoritarianism. His government has put growing pressure on the news media, and has ordered the police to crack down aggressively on peaceful protesters. Judges and prosecutors who were followers of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally turned rival of Mr. Erdogan, have been purged and arrested. A controversial series of trials of senior officers have pushed the once-dominant military to the sidelines of politics.

Critics say that Mr. Erdogan has been casting aside the secular system upon which Ataturk built modern Turkey, and replacing it with government based on Islamist values that puts religion at the center of public life. …

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