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The Changing Face, Perception Of Turkey's Prime Minister


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Clashes continue today in Turkey. On one side, police; on the other, protestors angry with what they consider the heavy hand of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even the Black Sea province of Rize, where Erdogan hails from, has seen fighting. Once considered a model politician in a complicated region, Erdogan now faces the strongest challenge of his decade in office.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on the man who made Turkey an economic and political force, but who some say has grown too comfortable with power.


PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A decade ago, these cheers might have been celebrating Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the force behind democratic reforms and booming economic growth. But these days, cries of dictator and fascist rise up from the streets, while the prime minister dismisses his critics as marginal.


KENYON: Viewing the sycamore trees at Gezi Park that the original protesters are trying to save, 64-year-old writer and professor Aygul Ozkaragoz says she hopes Erdogan gets the message these protests are sending.

AYGUL OZKARAGOZ: The message is that the minority would like to live in a democracy, the basic tenet of which is to allow the minority to prosper and to have its own way of life. And they don't want the majority tyranny. That's the basic message.

KENYON: But just down the hill, in the working-class neighborhood of Kasimpasa, there are plenty of people ready to stick up for a leader they call one of their own.

This is where young Tayyip Erdogan's father moved the family from the Black Sea when Erdogan was 13. These days, the Deniz taxi stand is an informal gathering spot for childhood friends of the prime minister.

Mehmet Safak remembers working with Erdogan in a theater group of the youth wing of an early Islamist party, the National Salvation Front. Safak says he's proud to have someone who understands the problems of the working class at the pinnacle of power in Turkey. He says those calling him a dictator simply don't know the man.

MEHMET SAFAK: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: The Tayyip Erdogan that I know hated dictators, he says. People are protesting over a couple of trees but do they remember how we were all choking when Erdogan came along and all the trees his government planted?

The support isn't universal even here, though. When the recorder is turned off, another boyhood friend of Erdogan's says he started out well but now seems to have caught the disease of most Turkish leaders - he goes deaf when opposing views are expressed.

Erdogan's political instincts were forged in an era of military coups and arbitrary jail terms for Islamist politicians. Erdogan was jailed at the end of his term as mayor of Istanbul in the late 1990s, for reciting a poem that was deemed an incitement to religious hatred. In jail, Erdogan formed the Justice and Development Party.

Analyst Soli Ozel, at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, says he arrived on the scene for the 2002 elections at precisely the right time.

SOLI OZEL: Erdogan came to power on a wave of almost societal upheaval, when the old regime in Turkey basically lost the last vestiges of legitimacy, brought the country to the brink of economic disaster.

KENYON: Erdogan was also lucky. Because of a quirk in Turkey's electoral laws, his party took two-thirds of the seats in parliament with only one-third of the vote. As prime minister, a cautious, pragmatic Erdogan surprised secular Turks by avoiding religious controversy, enacting pro-democracy reforms and energetically tackling Turkey's IMF obligations.

The economy boomed and the old guard's popularity waned even further. As Erdogan was re-elected once and then again, powerful generals found themselves retired or in jail - frequently both - and Erdogan's allies assumed key positions.

Ozel says with each victory, Erdogan's confidence grew.

OZEL: We see from about 2008-2009 onwards, his inclination towards a much more authoritarian, much more, let's say, intolerant of opposition type rule - and this is still continuing.


KENYON: Now, protesters have a question for Erdogan: What happened to the justice in the Justice and Development Party? With massive construction projects blossoming around Istanbul, I asked columnist Yavuz Baydar earlier this year whether Erdogan's party should now be called the Development and Development Party.


YAVUZ BAYDAR: That's right. Many people argue these days that it can be called just the Development Party. It has focused more and more in terms of material modernization. But when it came to the, you know, what Turkey needs really - the facing the past, dealing with the present and designing the future - that is the part that has become troublesome.

KENYON: Turkey's prized economic growth is now potentially in jeopardy, just as Erdogan seeks a political deal that will allow him to become president as his final term as prime minister winds down. That has Turks wondering if the old, pragmatic Erdogan will return to the political stage.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.