“There are approximately 72 million people in this country,” AKP leader and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told me soon after he was elected in 2003, “and I represent each and every one.”
Given the vituperative and angered reaction from Turkey’s “secularists” following today’s “yes” vote to bring the country’s 1982 constitution further into line with EU standards, Mr. Erdogan would be wise to put those words into action.
Turkey’s “secularists” are the fierce defenders of Ataturk’s vision of a modern, Western-oriented Turkey, where religion and state are, rightfully, separate. They are suspicious of the AKP, a party with a pious membership and a mosque-going leader. Most are convinced that he is, as one woman described to me on a return flight from Istanbul a few months ago “turning Turkey into Iran.” Today’s “yes” vote has put all of them on the defensive and, worse yet, offensive. Turkish tensions are running high.
Mr. Erdogan now is the time to prove that you represent Turkey’s 72 million people and show your commitment to a modern, secular Turkey.
I am no fan of the Turkish Prime Minister. Still, I credit him with lifting so many Turks out of poverty into the middle class, increasing female education and representation in Turkey’s labor force and engaging so many citizens in the democratic process. If Turkey is, as the European Commission acknowledged, Europe’s fastest (and perhaps only) growing economy, if it has a seat on the G-20 and the UN Security Council, it is because of Erdogan’s hard work.
Now Mr. Erdogan Turkey needs your leadership.
In the months leading up to the referendum, he did not display much of that. Not only did Erdogan fail to reach out to “secular” Turks to convince them that the constitutional reform would be in Turkey’s collective interest, he has displayed a taste for authoritarianism. As prime minister, Erdogan has censored select media that rails against him and arrested senior military officers on obtuse charges of plotting against the government.
Some would like to use this to paint Erdogan as some sort of Putin. I do not agree. I do believe, however, that Prime Minister Erdogan needs to lift his head up out of the deep political well he has dug himself into and rise up to be the leader that he himself knows Turkey desperate needs.
At the same time, as my friend and Turkey-expert Aengus Collins wisely pointed out, the secularists have a responsibility too. In order for Erdogan to lead, the Turkish public must follow. He is, like it or not, Turkey’s democratically elected leader – by a majority. That doesn’t mean they blindly follow or do not challenge. On the contrary, those who voted “no” should rigorously challenge Mr. Erdogan to work, as Aengus wrote me, “constructively with other leaders to craft a more comprehensive/democratic solution.”
Following this afternoon’s results, the Turkish Prime Minister reached out to the opposition with a conciliatory message, pledging to listen and work together – to “represent each and every” citizen in Turkey. It is the opposition’s responsibility to engage him and challenge him to do it.