September 26, 2014

Why didn't they listen to Erdoğan?

Aydoğan Vatandaş*

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become an international figure; it is probably the first time so many people outside Turkey know the name of the country's president since the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey.

Erdogan, UN speech
However, during his UN summit speech yesterday, many of the seats in the hall were empty, and it is safe to say that Erdoğan spoke only to a small group of listeners.

The main reason for this shift is the fact that Erdoğan has already lost his credibility in the world even though he still has some support on the ground in Turkey. The last two elections in Turkey can be considered an indication that he still has the support of the majority of Turkish voters even though he has already made the country less democratic and openly vows to continue this process.

There might be some complex motives for a significant portion of Turkish people's ongoing acceptance of Erdoğan as a credible leader. But the most important is the very fact that Turkish voters have not seen any alternative to follow and vote for yet. Second, by voting out of uncertainty, Turkish voters do not want to lose what they already have, even though they are not even satisfied by the current modes of governance.

According to the most recent life satisfaction report of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Turkish people look unhappier than many nations in the world. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from zero to 10, Turkish people gave it a grade of 4.9, one of the lowest scores reported by the OECD. Other countries reported an average level of life satisfaction of 6.6, the report reveals.

There are definitely important rhetorical factors that have contributed to Erdoğan's achievement in Turkey as well.

But unfortunately these were the same rhetorical factors that caused Erdoğan to lose ground in the international community.

When speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on Sept. 22, Erdoğan said that the Gülen movement -- considered one of the most peaceful global movements in the world by many scholars -- has begun to wield significant influence in the US media and characterized them as being as dangerous as the “Hashashins” (assassins) of the Middle Ages.

Erdoğan talked about the Gülen movement for half of his speech, but he was not asked a single question about the movement. Instead, he was asked about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the members of which more plausibly resemble the Hashashins than the movement for many listeners in the hall.

While he was talking about the movement, linking them to Hashashins, many in the audience had smiles on their faces. In his piece titled “Turkish Leader Erdoğan's Misstep in NYC,” Stephen Schlesinger, a well known American journalist and columnist for the Huffington Post, wrote that Erdoğan's appearance before the august CFR in New York City “did nothing to allay” the concerns about the prime minister.

“The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has a problem. Through his battles at home in recent years to ward off criminal investigations of his administration, his insistence on dismissing wiretaps that show he and his aides involved in backroom threats against opponents, his decision to fire or imprison police and judicial officials whom he thinks are influenced by an overseas foe, his willingness to crush demonstrators who oppose his willful rehabbing of downtown Istanbul and his crackdown on journalists, he is getting a reputation as a mistrusting, authoritarian and sometimes paranoid leader -- despite his recent election to the top office in his country,” wrote Schlesinger.

While Erdoğan attempts to alarm Americans by claiming the Gülen movement has seized the American media, he is actually revealing his discomfort with the fact that he does not have the influence on American media that he has on Turkish media. Erdoğan successfully shapes the perception of his voters. But this works neither in the US nor in Europe.

While many people in Turkey have no idea about the corruption probe that resulted in the resignation of Erdoğan's ministers from government in the past year, the diplomats and leaders of other nations seem convinced about the legitimacy of the allegations and wiretaps that link Erdoğan to the accusations.

While Erdoğan has claimed the wiretaps were fabricated, the prosecution of police officers in charge of the corruption probe has indicated that they were all real. It was also discovered that Turkish police were not alone, as German and US intelligence agencies have been wiretapping Turkey as well.

Many believe that it is impossible for Erdoğan to convince other leaders about certain issues, or to make them listen to him about, for example, “poverty,” when they may already have evidence of his involvement with the corruption.

The rhetoric Erdoğan has been using for a long time is quite similar to those of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and former Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But unlike Erdoğan, they had at least some listeners and were probably more convincing than Erdoğan.

*Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative journalist based in the New York.

Published on Today's Zaman, 25 September 2014, Thursday

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