Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has badly mishandled mushrooming protests, which could obstruct his political ambitions and constrain his latitude on foreign policy issues.
The protests, which were initially triggered on May 28 by Erdogan’s plans to uproot trees in Gezi Park in Istanbul, quickly snowballed into nationwide anti-government demonstrations when Erdogan’s harsh reaction unified a wide variety of political groups.
Turks have grown disgruntled over the headstrong prime minister’s increasingly autocratic leadership and the opaque decision making of a powerful centralized state that is unresponsive to the needs of Turkish citizens, especially those outside Erdogan’s nationalist and Islamic coalition. Many of the protesters are secular, liberal, and middle-class Turks who feel increasingly marginalized and ignored by Erdogan’s government. They resent Erdogan’s arrogant sultan-like behavior and abandonment of consensual politics. An increasing number of Turks fear that freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of the press are at risk now in Turkey.
The massive grassroots protests could hurt Erdogan’s ambition to run for Turkey’s presidency next year and strengthen the powers of the office. The increasingly polarized political atmosphere will make Erdogan more dependent on his Islamist and nationalist base of support. This could have important ramifications on a number of foreign policy issues, particularly if Erdogan resorts to populist appeals to shore up his base of support.
The pugnacious prime minister has already turned up his rhetorical attacks on the European Union, which has dragged its feet on Ankara’s application for membership. He is also likely to slow down Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel and take a more cautious position on Syria due to the lack of popular support for taking risks on behalf of Syria’s fractured opposition.
Turkey’s small Alawite Arab minority group has opposed Erdogan’s support of Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels against Syria’s Alawite-dominated government. Many members of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority have also joined the protests, concerned about what they see as Erdogan’s bias in favor of Sunni Muslims and incited by a proposal by his government to name a new bridge in Istanbul after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, who ordered the killing of many Alevis as heretics.
From the American perspective, the protests not only ring alarm bells about Erdogan’s growing streak of authoritarianism but could also undermine prospects for greater cooperation on the growing crisis in Syria. Now that the Obama Administration has backed into arming Syrian rebels, it may find that Erdogan’s government is less willing to take political risks on foreign policy issues.
Andrew Scarpitta is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.