Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, is seen in an angry mood during a parliamentary group meeting of his AK Party, in April 2014. (Photo: Sunday’s Zaman)
A look at the nearly 13-year political leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who served as prime minister until his election to the top post last August — shows that the current president, politicians and even some bureaucrats around him, communicate poorly with citizens as they frequently confront individuals in public using offensive and insulting language and even resort to using physical violence.
Many people in Turkey have heard anecdotes from the single-party era in Turkey — following the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 — that show the problematic approach of those statesmen toward citizens. Back then, it was very common for statesmen to look down on citizens, insult them and even use violence against them.
For instance, it is said that those who did not have “appropriate” clothing were not allowed to walk in the Kızılay neighborhood of Ankara. It is even said that prominent 20th-century Turkish minstrel Aşık Veysel Şatıroğlu, who travelled to Ankara to meet with the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was not allowed to enter Kızılay because he was wearing local clothes and hence could not meet with Atatürk.
According to another anecdote from the single-party era, then-Ankara Governor Nevzat Tandoğan referring to Osman Yüksel Serdengeçti, a former politician and journalist who was arrested in 1944, said: “You idiot from Anatolia, who are you to advocate nationalism or communism? It is us who will do it if need be. It is us who will introduce communism to the country if this is supposed to be done. You have two duties: first, to cultivate crops and do farming and second, to join the army when we summon you.”
Ninety years after these incidents, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been in power for the past 13 years — 12 of which have been under the leadership of Erdoğan — and the treatment Turkish citizens have to accept from high-ranking politicians is no different.
The language used by Erdoğan and senior members of the AK Party government as well as some bureaucrats has often been visibly offensive and belittling, while glorifying the state and those holding government posts. In 2006, Erdoğan — who is frequently criticized for his angry outbursts — rebuked a farmer, Mustafa Kemal Öncel, in the southern province of Mersin in front of cameras after the farmer had complained to him about his deteriorating financial situation due to the government’s policies. Öncel said, “You made my mother cry prime minister.” In response, an angry Erdoğan told the farmer, “Take your mother and leave,” in remarks that were interpreted as harsh and unbefitting of a prime minister.
In the same year, when a group of people protested during an inauguration ceremony in the western province of Balıkesir, saying that they no longer want to see martyred soldiers — referring to those killed fighting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan said in response, “The army is not a place to lie around.”
Yet another incident in the same year took place in Bilecik province’s Söğüt district, where Erdoğan’s personal bodyguard Ali Erdoğan — who is also his nephew — along with other bodyguards, attacked a group of people protesting then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. In the brawl, Ali Erdoğan was also injured, requiring stitches to his face.
In February 2009, when Erdoğan was addressing people at an election rally in the central province of Sivas, he used insulting language against journalists who he claimed were supporting the opposition parties. “They [opposition parties] have their own media. They have their own columnists there. They have their dear dogs, they sleep with them and get up with them,” Erdoğan said mockingly.
It is not only Erdoğan who uses ill-mannered and abusive language against citizens, but rather members of his former government have also demonstrated examples of such behavior. When Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker was visiting an AK Party election office in March 2009, he rebuked a person who was trying to explain something to him, saying: “Don’t act like a star. Don’t raise your voice to me.”
Blind man insulted in public
Former Health Minister Recep Akdağ was highly offensive to a blind citizen during a visit to the eastern province of Batman in May 2011. When Nurullah Mehmetoğlu, a blind switchboard operator, complained about his and his colleagues’ working conditions and asked for an improvement, Akdağ reacted by saying: “We gave you a job even though you are blind. What else do you want? You earn money, don’t you?” Akdağ remarks were incredibly insulting, particularly to disabled people and their families.
In June 2011, Erdoğan took part in a TV program where he complained about controversial books that had been written about himself and former President Abdullah Gül. “These books identified us as Jews, Armenians [and] excuse me for saying this, but even as Greeks.” With these remarks, Erdoğan treated being a Greek as a swear word, drawing huge reactions.
Journalists were again the target of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan in May 2012 when he again likened them to dogs: “There are vultures in the media. We made you get rid of your straps. Now they have international straps around their necks,” said Erdoğan, accusing some journalists of acting under the orders of foreign powers.
In August 2012, AK Party Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik’s remarks were found highly offensive by many when he criticized efforts by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to convene Parliament for an extraordinary meeting in the wake of the killing of soldiers in clashes with the PKK, saying, “We cannot convene Parliament just because a number of soldiers have been killed.”
Unemployed teachers who were waiting to be appointed to positions at government schools also received their share of abusive language from Erdoğan. When an unemployed teacher told Erdoğan during his visit to Gaziantep in January 2013 that if teachers who were waiting to be given positions were not appointed in February, he would not vote for Erdoğan’s AK Party in the March 2014 local elections, an angry Erdoğan told the teacher: “You take your vote and keep it for yourself. You keep it yourself.”
In March 2013, when a citizen complained about the minimum wage — TL 800 — to Labor Minister Faruk Çelik, Çelik’s response was: “TL 800 is good money. The price of cheese, bread and olives is obvious. It’s not as if you can’t live on this money.” The minister was thought to be saying that eating cheese, bread and olives would be affordable and sufficient for a family on minimum wage.
When Erdoğan faces protests, he often loses his temper and cannot control his words, as he did in Şırnak province in March 2013. When a group of environmentalists held a protest in the province against Erdoğan, who came to the Silopi district for the inauguration of a thermal power plant, he furiously told the protestors: “Don’t be ungrateful. Shut up, don’t be ungrateful. You cannot find bread to eat but when an opportunity is created for you to make a living, you just turn your back on it.”
Erdoğan calls Gezi protesters ‘looters’
Erdoğan’s insulting rhetoric reached new heights during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which were sparked by government plans to demolish the park and a build a shopping mall. Erdoğan, who was the prime minister at the time, referred to the protesters as “çapulcular” (a group of looters) many times during the protests. Erdoğan’s refusal to hear the protester’s demands and his orders for a violent crackdown on the protestors increased the tension in the country, turning the protests into nationwide, anti-government protests.
In November 2013, during a ceremony to commemorate Atatürk on Nov. 10 in the southern province of Adana, a group of protesters chanted slogans calling on then-Prime Minister Erdoğan to resign and demanding that then-Adana Governor Hüseyin Avni Coş step down. As the tension escalated, one protester allegedly shouted, “God damn you!” at the governor as the latter prepared to leave. Coş suddenly got out of his car and moved toward the man, demanding that his bodyguards detain the protester. “Take away that pimp who said, ‘God damn you!’ to me,” he was caught on camera saying. Coş faced a public backlash after his controversial remarks. However, Erdoğan stood behind the governor in a statement he made after the incident, asking the media why they didn’t question the way the governor was treated.
Soma pain grows
In May 2014, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan allegedly punched a young man several times in Manisa’s Soma district after a large crowd angrily protested the huge mining disaster in the city in which an explosion and subsequent fire killed 301 mineworkers.
Many people in the crowd protested Erdoğan’s presence, shouting “murderer” and “thief.” The surging crowds reportedly forced the prime minister to take shelter in a grocery store. However, some reports claimed that Erdoğan entered the store not to avoid the protests but rather to follow — and subsequently punch — a young man who had shouted at him outside the store.
A video of the incident shared on the popular video-sharing platform YouTube shows Erdoğan telling the protester, “Come next to me and boo me,” before walking up to the man in the store. At one point during the video, Erdoğan seems to grab the protester and punch him. Erdoğan was also caught on camera making an anti-Israel slur against a local who protested the prime minister during his visit to Soma.
In addition to Erdoğan, one of his aides also engaged in violence in Soma, this time against a man whose family members had been killed in the mine disaster. Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Erdoğan, sparked anger after being photographed kicking the mourner, sparking extensive coverage in the Turkish and foreign media.
Before the August 2014 presidential election, Erdoğan appeared on a TV program and apologized before using the word “Armenian” as one asks to be excused before uttering a swearword.
He said: “Let all Turks in Turkey say they are Turks and all Kurds say they are Kurds. What is wrong with that? You wouldn’t believe the things they have said about me. They have said I am Georgian. … They have said even uglier things. They have called me — excuse me for saying this — Armenian, but I am Turkish.”
His remarks have drawn widespread reaction for being racist.