Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan quietly resumed campaigning on Friday, apparently having said all he wants to say (for the moment) about the protest movement that would still be consuming the world’s attention were it not for bigger, even more explosive demonstrations that have since begun to rock Brazil.
The embattled prime minister has alienated many former liberal backers with his harsh clampdown on the protests, which were initially inspired by outrage over the construction of a public park but quickly became a broader indictment of Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. There was considerable resentment of new laws restricting alcohol sales, for instance, which were widely seen as a sign of growing Islamic influence in the government.
Naturally, Erdogan’s solution is to tour the Anatolian heartland and fine-tune his political skills in front of large, receptive audiences who are considerably more conservative than their urban counterparts. This is the base of his support, which will need to be fired up and engaged if he’s to win the presidency in 2014 as planned. And certainly, there is no anxiety about creeping Islamism to worry about at campaign events in cities like Kayseri or Erzurum. Strategically, Erdogan is focused on ensuring his ruling AK party maintains or even expands its large but not super majority in parliament if he is to pass the constitutional changes that would give the presidency more executive authority and political power. The only problem: having shed so many liberal backers, he’d likely win fewer seats if elections were held today. But with his defiant response to the protests and the tour of more pious territory, Erdogan’s bet seems to be that stoking his religious base will make up the difference.
It’s also worth noting that even as he campaigns to a domestic audience, Erdogan is surely aware that the international press corps will take notice of the considerably friendlier reception he gets this weekend. In that sense, the campaign events as much a public reassertion of his democratic credentials and popularity as they are a matter of locking down votes. They also marginalize the remaining protesters (who are fewer in number and less prone to clashes with police) as an impotent minority whose support he doesn’t need. So this is more tough power politics from the man who has dominated the Turkish scene for over a decade, and whose skills have been legendary since the 1990s. We don’t know yet if he has finally made a fatal misstep, but his brazen confidence suggests a master (as Erdogan often refers to himself) at work.