What is happening in Taksim Square is not new to Turkey, yet this time the social, political and economic context is very different. The protests which began as a “green movement” to protect Gezi Park from being replaced by a huge mall, and ended up being anti-government and anti-Erdoǧan, constitute a benchmark for both the domestic and foreign politics of Turkey.
Fifteen, ten, or even five years ago the social unrest currently under way in Turkey, and particularly Istanbul, would probably cause the intervention of the military. In the past social turmoil had always been one of the things that preceded the military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 as well as in the “post-modern coup” of 1997. Beyond that, the pro-Islamic policies of the government were also a factor that led the military to intervene as it had the historic role of safeguarding the secular character of the nation since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Young people are once again leading the protests although in general the people participating range in age, class, ideological and education background. The numbers of the protesters may not be as significant as they could or should have been but the resilience of this movement in face of the brutal police crackdown has been remarkable. To be sure the Gezi Park events and the Taksim movement shook the Turkish political system so much that, even if political change does not come about, things can never be the same again.
It is important and also understandable that the protests are so much focused on Prime Minster, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan, a conservative former mayor of Istanbul, became Prime Minister in 2003 followed by great expectations, after being released from prison where he was held because he recited a poem with Islamist references. A decade later, it is undisputable that Turkey and its democracy have come a long way although not without setbacks. In the course of his governance people in Turkey as well as in the Arab and Muslim world have gradually perceived him as the ultimate leader, not the least because of his pro-Islamic rhetoric and willingness to oppose Western and Israeli policies, while he came to be the face of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The past two to three years Erdoğan and his party, which until recently were rejecting their relation to political Islam and preferred the term “conservative-democrat”, adopted a clearer pro-Islamic stance and worked toward consolidating their power to the extent that it became gradually authoritarian. Two main reasons contributed to that change: the stalemate in the negotiations for Turkey’s accession into the European Union – and thus its Europeanization; and the eventual predominance of the AKP over the Kemalist pro-secular establishment which was expressed mainly through the military, the state bureaucracy and the Judiciary. The AKP managed to imprison many Kemalist military Generals based on coup allegations and replaced them with pro-government staff, thus crippling – to an unprecedented extent – the military’s ability to intervene in social and political life. This is also the reason behind the control of the police by the government during the current events in Turkey and the absence of any military imitative for direct or indirect intervention.
Within this framework Erdoğan was unstoppable in advocating for initiatives such as banning alcohol and abortions. His efforts to convert Turkey’s parliamentarian system into a presidential one through the amendment of the constitution have also been seen with suspicion in Turkey. Erdoğan, based on the current constitution is not allowed to be elected as Prime Minister for a fourth time. Therefore by converting the political system into a presidential one with increased powers to the president would allow him to get elected as president and become even more powerful. As such the past decade and specifically the last few years could be seen as a top-down pro-Islamic and authoritarian “revolution”, reverse from that of Kemal’s imposed top-down secular project.
This process, paradoxically enough, was paralleled by the pluralization of politics and the emergence of a vibrant civil society which enabled people to participate in social and political debates although there have been limitations due to the imprisonment of journalists and intellectuals with opposing views to the government. In that sense the political and social processes of the last years have both enhanced the government’s authoritarian tendencies and provided the necessary dynamics for the people to oppose them. Thus the AKP’s efforts to essentially uproot the secular Kemalist ideology and replace it with conservatism eventually stumbled on the opposition of the political and social secular forces which include socialists, nationalists, liberals, and even some Islamist democrats. This is not to suggest that the AKP is now opposed by the majority of Turks, quite the contrary. After all, the AKP has been elected with nearly 50% of the votes and it would thus be an exaggeration to suggest that the whole or most of the country turned against Erdoğan. What is more, as a recent survey showed the majority of the protesters do not feel close to any political party, an indication of a weak organized political opposition and lack of convincing alternative choices to the AKP.
In light of the above, and without any intent to overplay or downplay the significance of this movement, we could say that the protests have debunked the myth of Erdoğan and the so called “Turkish miracle”. That is, the Turkish democratization process, the high economic growth rates, and the regional superpower dynamic of Turkey, have all been moderated – to say the least – by the events of the past week. In this regard, the positive regional and international image of Turkey which reached its peak in the midst of the “Arab Spring” and the efforts for the resolution of the Kurdish Issue has been refuted. The so called “Turkish Model” of democracy which combines liberal economy and conservative/Islamic values has been damaged.
The double standards in Turkish politics are now as obvious as ever. Until recently it was a paradox for Turkey to be supporting the Palestinians but suppressing the Kurds and occupying half of Cyprus. The peace initiative in the Kurdish issue was a step toward altering this image. But now the violent crackdown on the protesters, the silencing of the media, and the defensive and persistent stance of the Prime Minister change everything. For many, this was a shock, and the shock came due to a simple fact: Turkey was not as democratic as it seemed, or as democratic as we wanted it to be. The Turkish “soft power”, the Turkish conflict mediation, the democracy exporter, among others, will no longer be seen as legitimate as before. Some people in the AKP elite understood that reality and tried to mitigate the government’s response to the protests (e.g. the President, and the Deputy Prime Minister). But it is now too late, even the principles of the “Davutoǧlu Doctrine” of Turkish foreign policy have been undermined and this is, indeed, something that will make things very difficult for Turkey in the region and beyond.
This is not an attempt to diminish the democratic progress in Turkey but rather an attempt to flesh out the contradictions the Turkish democratization process (note: we see “democracy” and “democratization” as very relative terms) as well as the romantic lens through which the “Turkish Miracle” has been seen over the past decade. A more realistic approach would allow for the identification of the strengths and weaknesses of the Turkish project and thus give way to constructive debate and solutions.
Lastly, it should be noted that the Turkish protests are not without weaknesses. Their ideological and political plurality could be a good thing for the dynamism of the movement but it could also create problems when it comes to the end political goals. Further, it is also worth mentioning that the absolute control of the security forces and the police by the state on the one hand and the remaining great support to the government by a big part of the society on the other, leave little potential for this movement to turn into something bigger with prospects for a massive revolution. Yet, the violent stance of the government does not make things easier for itself as there will still be a social reaction as long as there is violent and unjustified action. As such, the prospect of more injured or more deaths could indeed intensify the protests and bring about results difficult to calculate at the moment.
P.S. The Turkish protests signify another reality: a regional dynamic which brings together the local and the global amidst the implosion of the global economic and financial system, thus showing that this era’s conflicts are not only of ethnic and religious character but of ideological, social, political, and economic character as well. Although it is too early to be definitive, we could argue that what is happening right now in Turkey refutes Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” once more; be it inter-ethnic or intra-religious. This is particularly because the ideological and political clash in Turkey is taking place during a period of a broader “democratization” movement in the Middle East (a region predominantly analyzed through an ethnic and religious lens), despite other parallel ethno-religious expressions of conflict.
Published on Strategy International, 05/06/2013.