ISTANBUL: The European Union Monday urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to play a conciliatory role in Turkey, a day after becoming his country’s first popularly elected head of state.
The bellicose former prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who won with 51.9 percent of the vote, has gained a reputation for his strong and at times vitriolic speech toward domestic opponents and world leaders alike, increasingly frustrating Western allies of the NATO member.
In the lead-up to his presidential win, Erdogan twice likened Israel to Adolf Hitler and admitted differences over Syria policy meant he no longer talks directly to U.S. President Barack Obama. He sparked an outcry over a racial slur against Armenians and publicly attacked a female correspondent of The Economist, calling her a “shameless woman.”
Critics say Erdogan is adopting polarizing tactics and populist politics to galvanize core supporters among the majority Muslim voters, while alienating opponents, including leftists, secular liberals and ethnic and religious minorities, as he tries to extend his grip on the country and push through constitutional change.
But in his first address as president Sunday, observers pointed to a marked change in his usual fiery rhetoric, suggesting he may pursue a more conciliatory approach as he seeks to shore up an AKP majority in parliament in the 2015 general polls.
“I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million,” Erdogan said in a victory speech delivered from the balcony of his party headquarters in Ankara. “Those who didn’t vote for me won as much as those who did; those who don’t like me won as much as those who do.”
EU council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso congratulated Erdogan on the win, but urged him to adopt an inclusive approach.
“As you rightly underlined yourself, we trust you will maintain the conciliatory role which your new position involves, and strive to encompass all communities, beliefs, sensitivities, opinions and lifestyles of the Turkish society,” the top EU officials said in a joint statement.
Analysts in Turkey said the notable change in tone was politically calculated. “I was impressed and surprised by his conciliatory and inclusive style in his victory speech,” said Bayram Balci, visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East.
“He wanted so send a message, a sign, that he will be a president, but the presidency in Turkey is more inclusive and symbolic. He wanted to reassure people that ... he will be a father of the nation, for all Turks.”
Balci said Erdogan is also very conscious that his job will be very tough.
“In Turkey he has to face many challenges; the spirit of Gezi [square protests] will continue, the media will continue to complain about his style,” he said, noting that Erdogan would have to modify Turkey’s policy on the Middle East, particularly as dynamics become more complicated in Iraq and Syria. “He will need popular support not only in his conservative family, but more widely.”
Ilter Turan, political science professor in International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, said Erdogan’s change in tune was probably short-lived, arguing that he would likely continue with the kind of polarizing tactics that have proved successful for his agenda in the past.
“Prime ministers often make conciliatory addresses after an election victory,” he said. “We have to wait and see, but my feeling is the president-elect does not have the skills to conduct politics in a non-polarized way.”
“He has made comments in the past about non-Muslim minorities and others that have bordered on insults. These populist politics will go on, backed by selective patronage for his own constituents.”
Turan predicted that foreign policy blunders would prove difficult to undo, potentially putting Turkey on a dangerous trajectory.
“The prime minister has been rather sharp-tongued toward countries that he is supposed to be in an alliance [with]. He has depicted an outside world that is hostile to Turkey. He may have benefitted from this in the election, but when you form public opinion based on these kinds of allegations it’s not very easy to turn around,” Turan commented.“For the moment Turkey is in a difficult position in terms of Syria and Iraq, and relations with allies that are not particularly good. If more difficult situations arise, Turkey will find it more difficult to cope.”