ISTANBUL - "Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan!" chanted supporters of the Turkish prime minister, as a friend and I made our way through the absolutely mammoth crowd that descended on the Kazlicesme area of Istanbul last Sunday to hear their leader speak. As with Erdogan's rally in the capital, Ankara, the day before, the people who turned out here, many of whom were decked out in scarves, T-shirts, and masks supporting the prime minister, vastly outnumbered the Gezi Park protesters who have captured global headlines. Young, old, well-to-do, decidedly modest, religious, and secular all declared their devotion to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan. When the prime minister surveyed the 295,000 souls who had come to express their devotion and thundered, "Taksim Square is not Turkey!" it was a vindication of his vision, his economic policies, and the strength of his leadership. Yet the irony was that at Kazlicesme, Erdogan's demonstration of strength revealed his profound weakness and political vulnerability.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Turkey knows something about the Erdogan mystique. He's the tough guy from the Kasimpasa neighborhood -- literally and figuratively down a steep slope from Taksim Square -- who has remade Turkey over the last decade. For the media personalities parachuted into a maelstrom of tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray, Turkey under Erdogan is best described as an economic and political success story, a "model" of a "Muslim democracy and prosperity" for the Arab world. But Erdogan's reservoir of support is based on a much more tangible set of factors. The fact that he presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world -- it was the 16th in the 1990s -- is less important than the fact that more people are participating in it than ever before. There are still fabulously wealthy and terribly poor people in Turkey, but the overall gap between the two has narrowed. That is no small accomplishment. In other high-growth countries like Brazil, China, and Russia, for example, that gap has grown.
Consistent with the kind of grassroots work that the AKP's precursor, the Welfare Party, perfected in the 1980s and 1990s, Erdogan -- the guy who used to sell the Turkish version of the bagel, called simit, from a cart on the street -- has focused much of his time in office on improving the lives of ordinary Turks. In places where transportation was thin, health care was basic, and government services were non-existent, the prime minister has paved roads, built airports, established "Erdogan-care," and forced local governments to be responsive to their constituents. As a result, Kasimpasa is not so rough-and-tumble anymore and the people there love him for it.
Economics does not explain everything, however. Erdogan, whose political skills are unrivaled in Turkey, has an innate ability to appeal to his core constituents and, until not too long ago, beyond. His fiery and emotional rhetoric gets most of the attention, but it is framed around a folksy common sense that resonates across the country. When a law restricting the sale of alcohol to certain times and places came under fire from secular elites, many average Turks may have winced at Erdogan's oblique reference to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his deputy Ismet Inonu were alcoholics, but they also could not figure out what all the fuss was about. For them, the fact that liquor can be sold around schools and mosques at any time of day to anyone of any age offends a basic sense of right and wrong -- to say nothing of piety.
Nothing reinforced the wholesome values of Erdogan and his constituency more than the pedestal upon which the policemen were placed at the Kazlicesme rally. At the center of the city, where the black-clad and helmeted riot police were busy expending copious amounts of tear gas against their fellow Turks, the AKP rally was a law-and-order love fest. When police moved about on the streets adjacent to the site, the throngs parted ways and cheered for them. Young officers who had been brought into Istanbul for the event could not help but blush. The cops were relaxed, even chit-chatty. Unlike their colleagues who were engaged in a pitched battle in and around Istiklal Street at about the same time, the biggest problem for the police at the AKP rally was helping two foreigners find an outlet to recharge dying or dead iPhones.
Of course, Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves in part because his formal, parliamentary opposition has nothing to offer Turks. One of the many ironies of the last three weeks has been the indignation of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) over the prime minister's authoritarian drift. Hardly a paragon of democratic governance itself, the CHP can count on the support of a hard-core base that represents the Kemalist elite. Their commitment to a diverse and democratic Turkey is suspect, at best. The party of Ataturk is a relic of the past and, like the variety of lesser parties who have shown up in Taksim Square to show their colors, they appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate.
For Erdogan and his supporters, the rallies in Ankara and Istanbul only reinforced the AKP's mastery of the political arena. It was hard not to feel this energy and vibe in the carnival-like atmosphere of Kazlicesme. As one homemade placard declared: "Today is Turkey's Day!" Yet there was a dark underside to Erdogan's demonstration of power. The man holding the sign could have been appealing for Turkish unity, but in the context of the last three weeks, he was advancing the idea that Erdogan has consistently perpetuated -- the notion that the Gezi Park protesters were somehow not good Turks.