Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Thursday, 16 September 2010 12:52 UK

Referendum brings strength to Turkey's Erdogan

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Istanbul

Overwhelming support for constitutional change in Turkey's recent referendum is being seen as a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan but some opponents still see him as a threat to modern Turkey's secular state.

U2's Bono (L) and Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R)
Mr Erdogan met Bono ahead of U2's first concert in Turkey

Turkey's prime minister may be many things - scathing critic of Israel and self-styled pal of Iranian President Ahmadinejad - but an aficionado of the contemporary rock music scene, he is not.

After all, here is a man who tells women to have more children, who once tried to outlaw adultery, and who said recently that he could not understand why people had to drink wine, when they could just eat the grapes instead.

So who, I wondered, was going to come off best out of a meeting with the Irish mega-band U2, who were here for their first concert in Turkey?

The only music Mr Erdogan has ever expressed any liking for is a type of local crooning known as Turkish classical music. It had all the makings of a quick and awkward photo-op.

It does not help that the lofty prime minster has a habitually brusque manner, and that at well over 6ft (1.8m) tall he literally towers over his guests.

He has brushed aside the objections, at home and abroad, to his religious piety, to his abrasive leadership, and to his ambitious new foreign policy

But the meeting went on for an hour. And the wily prime minister made good use of it at the rally he was addressing afterwards to drum up support for his constitutional reform package.

"I just came from a meeting with Bono from U2," he told the crowd, "And do you know what he asked me? He said, 'brother, why did you go to jail?'"

And so Mr Erdogan was able to relate to the crowd how he was sentenced to prison 12 years ago just for reciting an Islamic poem, reminding his audience of the tight restrictions on religious expression which are one of the targets of his reform drive.

Popular support

The past week has reminded people here once again that they should never underestimate Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
About 49.5 million people were eligible to vote in the referendum

He has been in office eight years now. An impressive feat in a country once known for its revolving-door coalition governments.

He has brushed aside the objections, at home and abroad, to his religious piety, to his abrasive leadership, and to his ambitious new foreign policy.

There were plenty of good reasons to oppose some of his constitutional amendments, and many Turks did, but Mr Erdogan proved that he still has what it takes to get people behind him when it counts. His margin of victory in the referendum was larger than most polls predicted.

He is on track now for a third election win next year. That would make him the most powerful political figure in modern Turkish history.

So should the world be quaking in its shoes? Some writers in the Western media say yes, it should.

Turkey, according to this scenario, is turning its back on the West, embracing Iran, Syria and Hamas.

With his apparently unstoppable election machine, Mr Erdogan will roll back the secular regime forged by Turkey's founding father Ataturk, and impose an Islamic republic.

I think this is pretty far-fetched. Turkey is not Iran, nor is it the inward-looking, state-dominated country it was as recently as 30 years ago.

It is the world's 17th largest economy, built on a foundation of world-class exporting businesses.

Lifestyles in some parts of Istanbul rival those of Rome, Paris or London - although lifestyles in some eastern Anatolian villages are not too far from what you would find in Afghanistan. It is a very diverse place, which in part explains the deep polarisation of politics.

Conservative values

I was in a village near the Greek border the other day, during Ramadan, and asked the farmers there how many people were fasting.

They laughed at the question. About 10, they said, out of more than 300 residents. They were all Muslims, but none was a fan of the prime minister.

No evidence has yet emerged that Mr Erdogan has a radical Islamic agenda.

Much of provincial Turkey thinks like him, and so they vote for him

The complaints against him - and there are plenty - are pretty standard in Turkish politics. That he is autocratic and thin-skinned.

It is not pleasant if you are on the receiving end of one of his tirades. Even worse if you have been slapped with criminal charges, as some cartoonists have for their caricatures of him. But there is nothing especially Islamic about that.

Instead, he describes himself as a conservative, pro-business and pro-family values.

Much of provincial Turkey thinks like him, and so they vote for him.

When I asked him recently why he thought he had failed to bridge the gulf separating secular and religious Turks he seemed puzzled by the question.

"But I'm the prime minister for the whole country," he protested, "just look at what I've done.

"I've provided services to everyone, I've turned 81 provinces into building sites."

It seemed to be his proudest boast.

Watching him working the crowds and pressing the flesh before the referendum, it was obvious what he was - a politician, through and through, interested most of all in winning votes, and getting re-elected.

If that is the case, Turkey's secular democracy is probably safe.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Profile: Recep Tayyip Erdogan
18 Jul 07 |  Europe
Turkey country profile
22 Mar 12 |  Country profiles


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific