The many temper tantrums of Turkey Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan claims victory in local polls that became a referendum on his rule. (Reuters)

 

If there was an indelible image that emerged in Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral triumph on Sunday, it came during his final speech of the night, as he preened for his supporters and thrust his hands skyward. In most settings, this sort of speech would be a moment for unifying words. But Erdogan, who in recent weeks has navigated scandal after scandal, was in no mood.

“We will enter their lair,” he said of his critics and political enemies, whom he called “terrorists” and the “alliance of evil.” “They will pay the price. They will be brought to account. How can you threaten national security?”

He continued: “Immoral politics have lost. Politics on tapes, on false recordings have lost. … I ask the leader of the opposition if he didn’t have the recordings, what would you have said on your campaign? You only utter lies and false statements.”

Then, finally, the warning. “From tomorrow, there may be some who flee.”

By almost any standard, the threatening comments were remarkable in a country that considers itself democratic. But in one crucial way, they were not. Erdogan, who calls himself a “Kasimpasa man” to identify with his working-class home neighborhood, is no stranger to a red-faced temper tantrum. In fact, it’s perhaps the most defining aspect of his popularity, which despite the mounting criticism of him as corrupt autocrat, remains strong.

As Asli Aydintasbas wrote in an insightful 2009 Forbes’ essay, the almost comical combativeness of Tayyip Erdogan is symptomatic of governing a nation that once spanned three continents and considered itself an empire. Erdogan’s aggressiveness does the same thing for Turkey, Aydintasbas writes, that Vladimir Putin does for Russia: restore a sense of lost pride.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, left, just before he leaves the stage in front of Shimon Peres, right, President of Israel and Swiss Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum, WEF, during a plenary session on the Middle East Peace at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has later stalked off the stage at the World Economic Forum, after verbally sparring over Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Peres. (AP Photo/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey just before he leaves the stage during a plenary session on the Middle East Peace at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)

This was never more apparent than in 2009 when Erdogan got all red faced at the Davos World Economic Forum. “You are old,” Erdogan told then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Your voice is loud out of a guilty conscience. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.”

“Davos is done for me,” Erdogan grumbled and walked off the stage. He returned triumphant to Turkey, where signs lionized him as the “Conqueror of Davos!” and headlines hailed him as evoking “Kasimpasa attitude in Davos.”

Erdogan had likely learned a valuable lesson. When it doubt, let it rip.

And let it rip he does.

Erdogan on monuments he doesn’t like: In May of 2011, Erdogan saw a towering statue called “Monument to Humanity.” It depicted a Turk facing an Armenian. According to the Armenian Weekly, Erdogan called it a “freak,” “abomination,” and a “strange thing,” and had the Monument to Humanity decapitated.

Erdogan on the media: “Don’t bring the Dogan Group newspapers into your homes,” he once warned his ruling party. “The media have lost their reliability in this country. I’m calling on you to start your campaign against them … I’m completely clear on this issue.”

Erdogan on social media: “We now have a court order,” Erdoğan said. “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”

On social media again: “Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have to respect the Turkish Republic’s laws,” Erdoğan harrumphed. “Turkey is not a banana republic!”

And again the famous: “Twitter, mwitter!”

Erdogan on the popular game “Angry Birds:” Last November, Erdogan dropped by the makers of the wildly popular app Angry Birds. Erdogan was befuddled by the concept. “Why are the birds so angry,” he interrupted the developers during their talk. “Does it not have a negative effect on children?” According to Hurriet Daily News, Erdogan was assured that “no such negative impact has been reported so far. The birds were angry at those who attempted to steal their eggs.”

Erdogan on protesters: “If you call this roughness, I’m sorry, but this, Tayyip Erdogan won’t change.”

Erdogan on financiers: “Set yourself in order. For years you have exploited the sweat of my nation. No more. … Those who tried to crash the stock market without any shame, Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t have money in the stock market; it will be you who will crash.”

Erdogan on drinking: “Whoever drinks alcohol is an alcoholic.”

Erdogan on sociology: I know “sociology very well” for a politician, he told a union leader and stormed out of the room, only to be calmed by his daughter.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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