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Column: Turkey’s Problem Isn’t the System; It’s the Democratic Dictator

Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned them there was a limit to his patience. Apparently, for the Turkish prime minister, that was 12 days. This week riot police, armored personnel vehicles and bulldozers stormed Taksim Square, firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets at the protesters who had occupied the central Istanbul square for more than a week. People fled, many taking cover in nearby Gezi Park, while police tore down the banners, posters and temporary shelters they had made.

Though Erdogan had talked tough during the entire uprising — the largest test of his political leadership in the past decade — likening the demonstrators to “thugs,” “looters” and “riff-raff,” for a moment it seemed like he was going to take a more conciliatory approach, agreeing earlier to meet with some of the protest’s leaders. But that was a dodge. Erdogan may still meet with them, but he only meets with people from a position of strength. “They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen? Were we going to kneel down in front of these people⅜?” Erdogan said as police moved into the square. “If you call this roughness, I’m sorry, but this Tayipp Erdogan won’t change.”

It’s that kind of moxie that makes Erdogan the equivalent of an authoritarian rock star. Among modern strongmen, Turkey’s prime minister appears to have it all. His authoritarian credentials are solid: Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country, he runs roughshod over civil society, he wields the country’s libel laws like a bludgeon, and hundreds of regime opponents — professors, politicians, generals, activists, and media moguls — have been arrested in recent years.

The part of Erdogan’s rule that earns the envy of other authoritarian leaders is the democratic façade that he has maintained. No matter how illiberal his rule may be, Erdogan is also a popular, democratically elected leader who wins by large margins at the ballot box. In a sense, he is like the late Hugo Chávez, but he’s even better since he gets results. Turkey’s per-capita income has tripled in the past decade, exports have boomed, and marquee multinationals such as Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Pfizer have flocked to Istanbul to set up shop. Erdogan has plans to build a $10 billion airport that will be the world’s largest.

When he came to power in 2002, Erdogan inherited an economic mess on Europe’s doorstep. Now Turkey is a diplomatic player courted by all sides, and its success has made it a model for other Muslim countries. He is the Lee Kuan Yew of the Bosporus. Erdogan isn’t moving up the Dictator’s Learning Curve; he’s teaching the class.

Authoritarians know it gets harder to maintain one’s legitimacy — especially if you are trying to appear to be more democrat than dictator — the longer you hold on to power. That has been the experience in Malaysia, Russia and Venezuela of late, and many more countries before them. Erdogan has indicated he doesn’t plan to depart the scene soon: The prime minister is angling to revise the constitution to carve out a more powerful role for the presidency — and then run for that office next year. He foresees this new presidency as a strong, centralized executive, and has begun describing it as part of a “Turkish-style” system. (Warning: When a long-serving leader begins to describe his political system as utterly unique — whether it be Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign democracy,” Hugo Chávez’s “21st-century socialism,” or Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” — the simple translation is: I’m staying.)

Erdogan may succeed in clearing the square and scrubbing away the graffiti, but there is no doubt this unanticipated national uprising has left him dented. (Even the police’s ability to clear the streets was called into question as it turned to evening, and tens of thousands of people began to return to Taksim Square.) Secular Turks have long said that their country was becoming more polarized with each passing year under Erdogan’s rule.

Now they have given voice to their resentment, and the image of people taking to the streets (in more than 70 cities) has left an indelible mark that will inspire more activism and citizen involvement. And even if Erdogan remains popular with at least 50 percent of the country — and he certainly is — this episode left him seeming unhinged at times. From the beginning, he blamed foreigners and terrorist elements for provoking the crisis — much like Assad, Ben Ali, Gadhafi and Mubarak once did. This week, Erdogan was still peddling his conspiracy theories, although the blame had shifted to include others. The demonstrators, he claimed, were being used by “some financial institutions, the interest rate lobby, and media groups to ⅛harm⅜ Turkey’s economy and ⅛scare away⅜ investments.”

But if Erdogan is really on top of his game, he knows that the fault lies entirely with himself. A devout Muslim, Turkey’s prime minister has always said he would uphold and respect the country’s secular laws and institutions. But that feels less true as he tells women they should bear at least three children and his government begins to restrict the sale of alcohol and ban its advertising. This interference in people’s daily life, combined with his uncompromising, heavy-handed rule, is what provoked the protests — not terrorists or foreign banks.

Erdogan has simply overreached. Here he’d be wise to look to the example of the Chinese Communist Party. It realized more than 20 years ago that there was no point getting too bogged down in people’s personal lives. It was too expensive, and at the end of the day, how do you know they aren’t lying? So, they dropped the mass inquires into people’s inner-most secrets and offered a new social compact: Do what you want, make some money, maybe even get rich — just leave the politics to us. As a political strategy it won’t last forever, but it has ushered in the greatest expansion of wealth in the shortest time in history.

In the last two years, we have become so accustomed to seeing people rise up against their governments (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the list goes on) that we expect them to share the same goal — toppling their government. But that’s not what most of the people in Taksim Square were clamoring for. They are in no hurry to throw out the system. The truth is that as countries go, the system in Turkey has worked pretty well.

The problem isn’t the system: It’s the man who’s running it. What happens when a democratically elected leader rules undemocratically? That is what explains what is happening in Turkey today. And if Erdogan doesn’t check himself, there will be many more days that look like the last dozen.

William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.