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November 27, 2012, Tuesday

Magnificent times

“[Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s way” of executing politics has become a case study per se.

His domination of the domestic discourse and agenda increases continuously and inevitably because he continues to be unchallenged, the opposition leaders nothing more than political midgets.

But what baffles foreign and national observers alike is the manner of his conduct: His shows of shouting and angry lecturing on every possible issue -- which might soon extend to proposing menus for households (!) -- raise concerns about a shift towards an “iron fist rule.”

He has not hesitated to touch on the areas of aesthetics, the law, architecture, medicine and what not. Each and every time he has done so, he has badly stirred up emotions, causing either confusion, disappointment or downright alienation and anger.

In the case of suggesting a ban on abortion, he faced an outcry from women from all flanks of politics, and when coldly announcing his intention to reintroduce the death penalty, large swaths of politicians from Europe hit the roof.

Now, once more, Erdoğan has succeeded in engaging the public about a TV series on Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. He raised two points about the show: It was vilifying the country’s “ancestors” and its “glorious past” and he expected the judiciary “to do what is required.”

Surely, it is unnecessary to do what he perhaps wants all of us to do. By bringing attention to the subject and diverting it away from other vital issues, his open attack on cultural diversity and freedom of artistic expression must be seen for what it is: a new form of exercising tutelage.

Yesterday, he raised the curtain over a new area by declaring that the parliamentary immunities for 10 pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies -- accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after being seen embracing and kissing its armed militants on a highway near Van -- would be lifted.

If so, we are again pulled into the midst of high tension.

What, really, is Erdoğan up to? This is somewhat puzzling, and not that simple, for us common mortals. It serves to increase domestic tensions. It also boggles minds elsewhere on both sides of the Atlantic and across the Mediterranean.

There is obviously something in his constant “rhetoric of fury” and his now sharply visible “face without any smile” which results in unpredictability, singling Turkey out in politics and diplomacy as “not to be entirely trusted.”

One way of seeing his pattern is utterly simple: Erdoğan is dragging the country into a swamp of authoritarian rule, with an obsessive fixation on an overpowered presidency. The longer he is unchallenged, the quicker the process will be. He is simple-minded, this camp says, not at all calculating nor far-sighted -- he meets things head on.

But, in a broader picture, it does not quite cut it. To others, like myself, his pattern is complex, filled with “the devil is in the details.” Erdoğan has chosen a delicate path. He moves with his two legs, separate, on parallel tracks: While he maintains a high-decibel, “threatening” approach to keep his electorate and grass roots close, his real deeds take place, albeit in ever slower motion, and in a narrower scope, by advancing reforms.

Two examples illustrate this. Yes, he argued for the death penalty, but also hinted at a new round of secret talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and offered some form of amnesty for the PKK “commanders” to move to remote countries. He has also moved ahead with Kurdish in courtrooms and public institutions. While he engaged the public on the TV series, the Ministry of Education lifted an age-old practice of students wearing obligatory uniforms in public schools. He seems to be “covering up” his concrete steps with his rhetoric, keeping the opposition off guard or ineffective. If true, this is clever.

Clever, but dangerous. Erdoğan’s “razor’s edge” tactical approach is built on his obsession with the opinion polls presented to him frequently, mainly on social issues. He adjusts his patterns to appease people known for their deep conservatism. As Bekir Ağırdır, the director of independent pollster KONDA, put it, Erdoğan rules Turkey through opinion polls -- a very risky way. He is there on the top not to reaffirm the status quo but to persuade the electorate to change it. It can, and will, backfire.

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