Rumor has it that when asked “who is the best player in your team?”, legendary Germany coach Helmut Schoen replied “Gerd Mueller, of course”. Then the same journalist asked “who is the worst player in your team?”. Helmut Schoen replied “but Gerd Mueller, of course”. The diminutive forward was one of the best inside-the-box players to ever grace the soccer field. Yet there were times that he would drift out of the game, lose focus and become a liability for the team. This combination earned Mueller the dubious accolade of being the best and worst of a brilliant German team that went on to win the World Cup in 1974.
The World Cup is just around the corner and Erdogan is a serious soccer fan, so I think the comparison would not be entirely misplaced. His strongest feature as a politician and leader is his straightforward, emotional, and uncalculative approach. He follows his instincts, and his immediate processing of events is not based on a cost analysis approach, but on a right versus wrong approach. This is what made him stand out in the midst of a plethora of petty calculative politicians left and right (yes, dethroned CHP leader Baykal was one of them) and won him and his party election after election. This is his trump card.
This is, alas, also the chink in his armor. This is what makes him unable to resist taking a swipe at journalists he disagrees with. This is what causes him to produce the sharp public reactions that have contributed to his paternalistic image and exposed him to criticism from friend and foe. Understandably, it is the reaction to this pattern that has become the litmus test for the one’s positioning in the Turkish political spectrum.
The liberals clearly see Erdogan’s emotional persona as patronizing and paternalistic. However, they can differentiate between Erdogan the emotional politician and Erdogan the leader, who has unconditionally put his entire weight behind the recent process of demilitarization and democratization. They know that Erdogan the leader is probably the only one with the perseverance, courage, and recklessness necessary to take on the so-called Deep State, which is why they support him. But there is no umbilical cord between the liberals and Erdogan, which is why they have no qualms about criticizing him when they see it fit, as was case with his declarations about the deportation of the illegal Armenian workers.
The pious Muslims see it too, and I would say a significant portion of them is not necessarily thrilled with Erdogan’s emotional outbursts. However, they have too much at stake in the processes that Erdogan is supporting to allow themselves the luxury of criticizing him. For a liberal, the freedom to wear a headscarf and go to college or find employment is a matter of principle. For pious Muslim, that is an existential matter for their participation in the Turkish public sphere with their Muslim identity. Furthermore, a lot of them identify too much with Erdogan as one of their own to be able to criticize him publicly.
And yes, my favorite reaction to Erdogan the emotional politician is that of the neo-nationalist or staunch secularist crowd, which is not an easy group to define. They have long tried to brand themselves as pro-western, but one can only buy that if one’s definition of the West dates back to the 30s, so understandably they have lost that oh-so-precious title. They know quite well that the ongoing demilitarization and democratization process in Turkey has nothing to do with Erdogan’s paternalism. It is a natural reaction of a long restricted and, indeed, violated society. But they stand to lose too much from that process. Hence, their reaction consists of bundling that process with Erdogan’s paternalistic streak. So, when army officers or others are investigated on grounds that they were conspiring with the intention of staging a coup (and the evidence abounds), that gets branded as an authoritarian crackdown on the secularist forces. And that is the way it has been served to various Western media outlets as well.
Luckily enough, there is not enough ink they could spill on newspaper pages to reverse that process. The proverbial king is naked for both Turks and outsiders to see, and evidence of coup plans builds up by the day. But that is their only card, and they are sticking to it. You can’t blame them; dum spirum sperum, as the saying goes, and God knows what manna from Heaven they are waiting for.
It should by now be clear where the writer of these lines stands on the issue. Erdogan the emotional politician has to be analyzed unbundled from Erdogan the Prime Minister and the policies and processes the latter enacts or supports. But it would make things a lot easier for his supporters if Erdogan the leader could rein in any unnecessary emotional outbursts.
I am sure Germans would have liked to see only the best side of Gerd Mueller on the field.