ISTANBUL: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s caustic rhetoric has won him the devotion of Turkey’s conservative Islamic heartlands, from his dismissal of political enemies as “worse than leeches” to his comparisons of Israel’s actions in Gaza to those of Hitler. His fiery podium speeches and blunt populism have galvanized core supporters and cemented his rise as modern Turkey’s most powerful leader, culminating in his victory this month in the country’s first popular election for president.
His language, often playing on a schism in Turkish society between a Western-facing, largely secular class suspicious of his Islamic ideals and a pious segment of society who see him as a hero, has left opponents fearing his presidency will only polarize Turkey ever further.
He has made no secret of his ambition to establish an executive presidential system, a move his critics say would put too much power in the hands of a leader who is steering the country ever further away from the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern republic.
Few expect his leadership style to radically change after his inauguration Thursday, despite a constitutional requirement that he remove himself from party politics, but aides say a new, softer tone will start to emerge from a leader who has built a career on his ability to rally the crowds.
“The strength of Erdogan’s image lies in his authenticity,” said Erol Olcak, an advertising guru who has worked with Erdogan for two decades and whose Arter agency has masterminded AKP election campaigns since its foundation in 2001.
“He will both perform as head of state ... and, because he was elected by the people, demonstrate his strong emotional connection with them. This is the new balance and we are working on new strategies and ways of communicating.”
There are already signs of a change in tone.
Addressing the thousands gathered below the balcony of the AK Party headquarters on Aug. 10, the night of his election victory, he appeared to stick largely to a scripted speech crafted around more embracing language.
He emphasized that all citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious background, were “Turkiyeli” – citizens of Turkey – a term he had rarely, if ever, used in public speeches as prime minister, preferring instead to refer simply to ‘Turks’ – the traditional word for the Turkish ethnic group.
“We are the children of one nation. We are the people of Turkey before being Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Yazidi ... Alawite, Sunni ... before being Kurdish, Arab, Laz, Georgian, Bosnian, Circassian, Armenian or Greek,” he told the cheering crowds.
It was a contrast to his comments earlier that week, when he said opponents had insulted him by calling him Armenian, a remark which sparked outrage among ethnic minorities including the mainly Christian Armenians, and led to a criminal complaint.
Erdogan’s opponents doubt he will change.
“He used derogatory language ... just to win elections, and then made a reconciliatory speech,” said Hursit Gunes, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP who filed the complaint over Erdogan’s Armenian remark.
“A real president wouldn’t use such a language during his campaign. When Erdogan takes office he will never be impartial. He will be the president of a certain group and he will act or speak according to his polarizing spirit.”
Erdogan emerged victorious in the Aug. 10 presidential vote after one of his most difficult years in office, bouncing back from anti-government demonstrations last summer, a corruption scandal months later and a power struggle with his former ally turned archfoe, U.S.-based sheikh Fethullah Gulen.
His polarizing rhetoric reached a peak during the summer protests, when he dismissed demonstrators in Istanbul as “riffraff” and contrasted their indulgent lifestyles with those of the common man “Ahmet or Mehmet” in the Anatolian heartlands. “They say: We are artists, we are writers, we have capital, our vote is not equal with that of Ahmet or Mehmet in Kayseri,” he said at the time. “They drink their whiskey on the Bosphorus ... and hold the rest of the people in contempt.”
It was characteristic of the victim mentality he has repeatedly employed, casting himself and his supporters as the subject of a plot by outside forces including foreign powers and Gulen’s network of followers, a common enemy against which his loyal supporters could rally.
Erdogan accuses Gulen’s sympathizers of infiltrating institutions including the police and judiciary in an effort to seize the levers of state power, a struggle which he has vowed to pursue as president, along with his new prime minister, outgoing foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Here too, though, Erdogan’s language – if not his message – appears to be softening.
Where he once vowed to hunt down Gulen’s followers “in their lairs” and described them as “worse than leeches,” in his presidential victory speech he called on “sincere and pure brothers” in the movement to distance themselves from it and question Gulen’s teachings.
“Now Erdogan has been elected president, you can see the difference in tone. He didn’t transform overnight, he just adjusted to his new position,” one senior AK official said.
“From now on you will see a different Erdogan,” he said.