Erdogan in Trouble

His Biggest Challenge Is President Abdullah Gul, Not Liberals

Workers hang portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, President Abdullah Gul, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan before a groundbreaking ceremony for the third Bosphorus bridge linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul May 29, 2013. (Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters)

In some circles, it is almost a matter of faith that the ongoing protests in Turkey will not have any serious political consequences for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As CFR Fellow Steven Cook wrote on ForeignAffairs.com this week, “Even today, as the tear gas continues to fly, there is no question that Erdogan would win an election.” The assumption is that the prime minster can still rely on at least the passive support of the 50 percent of the population that cast their votes for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the last election, held in 2011. Even if they are not entirely happy with his behavior, the thinking goes, they are not ready to withdraw their backing -- good news for Erdogan, who would like to crown himself president next year. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Erdogan’s supporters are with him for the long haul. In the end, the Taksim Square protests -- and the prime minister’s response to them -- have likely marked the end of an era.

As many have pointed out, the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities mainly hail from the secular and liberal urban middle class. Yet they are far from alone in their weariness of Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. Religious conservatives, the AKP’s main voter base, are uneasy with it, too. Notably, the most powerful religious community in Turkey, the fraternity of the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, is now openly opposed to the prime minister. On April 17, 2013, the group even released a statement expressing deep concern about new restrictions on the freedom of expression in Turkey. It is hard to overstate how dramatic this break is: Gulen’s group was Erdogan’s main ally in his power struggle

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