THE BLOG

Turkish President Preaches to the Choir

04/12/2014 14:19 GMT | Updated 02/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent string of off-key statements are music to the ears of both his supporters and an opposition that loves to poke fun from the sidelines but offers scant intelligent counterpoint.

While they were laughing, the Turkish Parliament passed a bill that gives police new powers to detain suspects without concrete evidence and sharply reduces the judiciary's independence - with just 17 opposition lawmakers in the 550-seat assembly showing up to vote "no."

Whether he is rewriting a half-millennium of historical consensus about the New World or using questionable theology to redefine feminist doctrine, Erdogan's headline-grabbing rhetoric is a powerful distraction, with much of the media's response an effort to out-Erdogan Erdogan.

It all started with a claim at a summit of Latin American Muslims that Muslim explorers beat Christopher Columbus to Cuba by three centuries and left behind a mosque. In the aftermath, pro-government newspapers and TV channels were quick to defend the little-known theory.

Rather than admonish the adviser who fed Erdogan faulty information, there was a desperate search for any academic willing to offer supporting evidence. Pro-government news outlets found one academic paper and dreamed up tales of Native American brides in 15th-Century Istanbul, failing to cast any doubt on a political figure suddenly rewriting history.

As if to take some of the heat off Erdogan, government officials began wading in with their own bizarre claims, such as the science minister saying Muslim scholars discovered the Earth was round centuries before Galileo. (Never mind that the ancient Greeks figured this out in 300 BCE, while it was Galileo who proposed that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe.)

Then Erdogan's confession at a conference on women's rights last week that he saw gender equality as "against nature" and that feminists are incapable of understanding motherhood was followed by a government announcement that it would set up a committee to look into violence against women. After Erdogan's remarks, can such a body really improve women's plight in a country where hundreds of them are murdered by their partners or male relatives each year and are 10 times more likely to face domestic violence than their European peers?

In the same speech Erdogan went on to compare himself to an Ottoman sultan. "No matter how bad laws are, if they are held by a just sultan then they lead to fine results; no matter how good the laws are, if they are held by a brutal sultan then they lead to injustice," he said.

The week was rounded off with a presidential rubber stamp on vigilantism when he gave local shopkeepers carte blanche to mete out street justice. The comment was made on a day of a hearing in the trial of a group police and shopkeepers accused of beating to death 19-year-old Ali Korkmaz during the Gezi Park protests last year.

It was a remarkable few days in the new cycle. Much of it can be put down to the politics of diversion. With the fight against ISIS at times threatening to cross Turkey's borders and a fragile Kurdish peace process in the lurch, boosting Muslim pride or feeding voters' chauvinism may buy Erdogan some breathing room. His party famously polls extensively before announcing policy initiatives, and Erdogan is not prone to tin-ear gaffes.

Advisers may also fret about research that showed most Turks see Erdogan's new $2.24 billion presidential palace as a waste of money. Unveiling the controversial 2,000-room structure allegedly built on protected forestland just two months after he assumed his new job could tarnish the working-class credentials so central to Erdogan's popularity.

Fledgling efforts to revive Erdogan's plans to redevelop Gezi Park, the scene of the largest mass demonstrations in decades that cost several lives, may also detract from his presidential persona, meant to be above the political fray.

Accusations Erdogan has become a "dictator" are made without fairly considering his unmatched success at the ballot box and the significant democratic milestones he achieved, such as defanging a coup-happy military, seeking to end a 30-year civil war with Kurds, expanding religious rights and liberalising the economy. He either feels strong enough to get away with saying anything or weak enough that he needs to re-consolidate his base by telling the voters what they want to hear. That's politics.

What is cause for concern is when a leadership makes such pronouncements and few stop to look at what actually lies behind them. That's political sleight of hand.