7 Haziran 2013 Cuma

“Occupy Istanbul,” the “Turkish Spring,” or Something Else? Understanding the Protests in Turkey


Turkey was no democratic paradise before Erdogan’s JDP came to power. But the balance of power was such that no single actor (be it a party, civil association, or the military itself) was powerful enough to impose its will on the society, even if they wanted to. Now that the JDP is so powerful and without serious rivals, the country cannot afford anything other than becoming truly democratic so as to safeguard liberties against a tyranny of the majority, and that has not been happening. The result is greater polarization, which erupted in this week’s protests.

This is an abridged version of a longer essay I posted here in June 2013. I wanted to cut it down to a more manageable size so that it would actually be read. 

What is going on?

People of Turkey are in the streets. They have been protesting their government all over the country for a week. The police have reacted violently, killing several demonstrators, injuring and arresting thousands, and helped escalated the anti-government sentiment in the due course. What started as a small environmentalist protest against the demolition of an urban park in Istanbul has turned into a national political showdown.

The events are indicative of the deep tension underlying Turkey’s politics. Progressive, pro-democracy people in Turkey are extremely worried about the direction the country has taken under the increasingly autocratic rule by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (JDP, or AKP after its Turkish initials).

It will be rightly pointed out that Turkey was no democratic paradise before the JDP came to power, and there have been certain improvements in governance during the party’s term. However, today there is reason to fear that Turkey is not on the road to improvement, but on a slippery slope to authoritarian rule by a populist leadership that is fueling social polarization for political victories. Before JDP, Turkey was a country of weak coalition governments operating under constraints set up by the bureaucratic authoritarian legacy of past military coups. The balance of power was such that no single actor (be it this or that party, civil association, or the military itself) was powerful enough to impose its will on the society, even if they wanted to. Now that the JDP is so powerful and without serious rivals, the country cannot afford anything other than becoming truly democratic so as to safeguard liberties against a tyranny of the majority, and that is not really happening.

After a series of reforms that the party undertook in the first couple of years in office the image of a moderate, reforming party stuck with the JDP, which looked like the proof that a cadre of ex-Islamists could successfully run a democratic government. However, the distance between the image and reality has grown dramatically since then. Liberal constitutional reforms are overshadowed by authoritarian by-laws and administrative practices. The freedom of assembly cannot be exercised by opponents of the government. Any demonstration attempt that involves expression of political dissent (be it over the mismanagement of university entrance exams or corruption charges alleged to government figures) are habitually met by the police forces’ indiscriminate and disproportionate use of violence, with plastic bullets and tear gas canisters often targeting civilians in the head.

When it comes to the freedom of press, the situation is more complicated. Yes, Turkey is said to be the country with the highest number of journalists in jail, and that is bad enough. But unbiased political reporting seems to be as much hampered by the Turkish media’s own habitual complicity with political power as by government censoring. Private media bosses have business interests in energy and construction, and they are just too willing to do everything at their disposal to please the Prime Minister lest they may be cut off from the government’s friendship while going for their business. It is in such a context that the mainstream media has turned a complete blind eye to the recent protest wave during its first several days. While CNN International was reporting live on the events occurring in this major NATO ally, the local franchise CNNTurk was airing a documentary about the sexual life of penguins. It took days until the national media was sufficiently put to shame by the public to show something related to the events. This media landscape adds to the sense of abandonment and insecurity felt by the government’s detractors.

So far the authoritarian tendency has shown itself not so much in deciding over matters of regime as in controversial development projects and in certain acts aimed at giving governmental direction to Turkey’s centuries-old kulturkampf towards a more conservative (Sunni) Muslim future–like the recently imposed restrictions over liquor sales. But the legitimate fear is that an administration that has adopted the my-way-or-the-highway style as a regular method of dealing with political disputes and which faces no negative consequences for it may just start wanting to get its way for everything else too. There is the lurking sense that everything and anything in Turkey may soon be liable to uncompromising decisions by the single-party administration so long as there is an electoral plurality backing it at the ballot box. And this is an administration ruled autocratically by a Prime Minister who, during his younger, Islamist years, likened democracy to “a tram that one gets off once it arrives where he wants to get at.”

Not that there is not already debate over regime questions. Just before the recent protest events the major political debate in Turkey was about a possible transition to a Presidential regime, abandoning its current Parliamentary system (whereby a popularly elected Prime Minister actually leads the administration and a President of lesser importance serves as the head of state). The idea is sponsored by the current Prime Minister Erdogan, who wants a highly empowered Presidential post for himself in the near future. Erdogan government’s recent steps to open negotiations with the Kurdish insurgent organization PKK to arrive at a peaceful resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish problem is acknowledged as a strategic move to recruit allies and buy consent for the transition to a presidential regime.

It is understandable that Erdogan expects some political reward in return of a bold move that would, if materialized, result in a halt to the conflict with the Kurdish insurgents that has cost tens of thousands of lives and ailed the country for too long. However, a Presidential system (which, as leading political scientists like Juan Linz have found, provides a convenient pathway towards authoritarianism if adopted in unconsolidated democracies) would not be a good fit with Turkey’s political culture and institutions, if the aim is to improve democratic governance. Turkey has an extremely centralized political structure, with provincial governors appointed and all major policies—from taxes and security to education—being decided from the capital, and even the municipalities are practically dependent on the government administration in many of their affairs. During JDP’s term in office there have been certain moves to further consolidate this pattern and Erdogan expressed no intention of changing it while creating an empowered Presidency. Now what about a popularly elected President to lead the executive power with no power-sharing with local political institutions in a country of large regional political, sociocultural, economic disparities? Add in the top-down fashion in which Turkish political parties are managed and electoral candidate lists are handpicked by the party leadership, and the traditional lack of independence of the country’s supreme court, and you may come up with a figure who resembles more to a sultan than a democratic leader. If you want more spice, just put in Erdogan’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Ottoman sultans’ cultural legacy. This is why there is serious concern about Turkey’s future as a country with Erdogan as its super-President, and why many of the slogans and artwork (like “Look, the king is naked!”) of the recent protests have addressed him personally.

The prospects

Following the violent weekend, the Istanbul stock exchange had a Monday opening with a 12% index plunge on June 3. This is a decline of a magnitude that has never been experienced since the start of the JDP’s coming to power in 2002, and rarely before that. As the sense of a political crisis created by the protests still goes on, it remains to be seen if the big business (a class that had provided enthusiastic support for the party’s economic agenda) will start to criticize Erdogan for his intolerance of dissent or urge for a decisive crackdown of the demonstrations to go on for business as usual. The economic growth pattern installed during JDP’s term relies heavily on foreign financial investments that can enter and leave Turkey at the point of a whim, and without a sustained flow of this external source, the country—poor in domestic savings, value-added exports or precious natural resources—will not be able to finance its consumption bill and its chronic trade deficit. The ability of the market to absorb political shocks is therefore not very high. In the event of a significant loss of confidence in Turkey’s investment climate, the country is not likely to undergo the kind of economic crisis that other countries in South Europe have been experiencing, thanks to its stronger public finances and banking sector; but it may well suffer an economic slowdown that would hurt JDP’s election prospects as well as Erdogan’s presidential ambitions.

But is a major change in Turkey’s political leadership really to be expected? Amidst the obscurantism and the half truths coming out of the pro-government sources, the euphoric self-congratulations of the opposition activists, and the limited insights of foreign media accounts that cannot help but go beyond the rather misleading Arab Spring metaphor, a sober evaluation of what the protests may entail for the near future is in order.

It is true that the protests have brought people from far ends of the Turkish political spectrum together. But make no mistake: any opposition to Erdogan’s power has to face his party at the ballot box, and that is where the JDP is the strongest. Though nobody can say for sure, the disparate groups that have come together for the protests seem to be mostly enlisting people who have not been among JDP’s voters anyways. If the protests are really having an impact, it may mean that among the 50% of the country who have turned in a vote for JDP in 2011, some of the “economic voters” may sit on their hands when the next election day comes, or even get so angry at Erdogan’s antics as to vote for an opposition party, but JDP’s core constituency would still remain big and they would not be swayed away from the leader that many in their number love dearly. This is the crucial arithmetic at the heart of Turkey’s political tensions: even though the supporters and detractors of Erdogan’s JDP have formed blocks of roughly the same size in an increasingly polarized country, the supporters have a party to rally behind, while the detractors are distributed among various unfriendly political groupings.

The very diversity of the people attending the ongoing protests, although a welcome sign in a country divided deeply on so many axes, is also the reason that they are not likely to come together behind a single electoral vehicle. The main opposition party—the secularly-oriented Republican People’s Party (CHP after its Turkish initials) cannot expect to form an alliance with the Kurdish party (Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP after its Turkish initials) without alienating the Turkish nationalists in its own electoral base, and it is also far from doing enough to invite to its ranks the groups currently standing outside somewhere to its left. The creative, youthful, non-violent yet irreverent tactics of the current protests may inspire the party leadership to energize their followers in similar ways and expand their appeal, but this is yet to be seen. The ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), on the other hand, stands closer to JDP itself than to any other political organization. And the military, until not long ago a cornerstone of every analysis of Turkish politics, is now non-existent as a political actor, having been decisively sent back to the barracks through a series of political and legal moves by the JDP government over the last decade. This political landscape would mean that the protests are probably not heralding an end to the JDP era in the predictable future, but marking the limits of the JDP’s power. Erdogan and his party had ridden a wave of almost uninterrupted political triumphs, collecting accolades domestically and internationally for eleven years. Their power seemed to be destined to increase. A cross-class, non-partisan collective of common people have now raised their voice to put a halt to this trend for now.

Curiously, the most serious challenge to Erdogan’s leadership may arise in the future from within the conservative block’s own ranks, engineered somehow by the Gulen community. The latter is a religious fraternity spiritually led by the preacher Fethullah Gulen, a seclusive figure who lives in the USA and enjoys enormous respect among his Turkish followers. The weight of this rather mysterious entity in contemporary Turkish politics cannot be exaggerated. Thousands of state-of-the-art charter schools scattered around the world teaching science and math, and a business network that enlists innumerable enterprises founded by the community’s members underlie the wide and deep influence of the Gulen community. Although Gulen’s informal empire and Erdogan’s political party have prospered in symbiotic relationship for over a decade, it seems that there is now significant rivalry between the two entities. The police command and the public prosecutors are known to be more responsive to Gulen’s leadership than to the Prime Minister, and during the last year there have been major scenes of a showdown over how to delimit spheres of influence. There is the growing sense that if Erdogan’s personal career takes a downturn, Fethullah Gulen will not be shedding tears so long as Erdogan does not bring down the political supremacy of the conservative block with himself. Abdullah Gul, who was JDP’s second man before becoming the current President, and who has a more moderate, reconciliatory style in contrast to the short-tempered Erdogan, is known to be much closer to the Gulen community, and he could be there to fill in the role of a politician to lead a Muslim conservative government if need be. Gul may not enjoy the passionate popular support Erdogan has inspired, but he has not alienated as many people either. (He has already been heard expressing some empathy with the protestors, unlike Erdogan). If and when the Turkish electorate goes on to elect a super-president, Gul may have an easier time to bring together the majority required.

However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known for his determination, and he has not given any signs that he may be willing to tone down his political career and take a back seat. He also still enjoys a strong personal following. In response to the recent events, the pro-government sources have been making allegations pointing to Israel as the power that secretly orchestrated the approving international reaction to the protests, if not the protests themselves. True or not, the allegation will strike a chord with the conservative voter, as the Israeli political leadership does have its problems with Erdogan’s defiant attitude towards its handling of the Palestinian question. This picture may help reconsolidate the conservative public around Erdogan himself as the first national leader who dared confront Israel (traditionally an official ally of Turkey but traditionally unpopular in the street) over Palestine.


Turkey saw waves of popular mobilization for various kinds of political projects in the past. The view of the streets today is largely one that pro-democracy forces could be proud of. What started as a protest over the design of urban spaces has escalated into a movement that demands greater government accountability and respect towards citizens. The demonstrators do not expect to be accommodated over every single issue that they think differently from a popularly elected leader. Many of them have come to understand that Turkey cannot not bar the debate over how exactly secularism should be applied in a Muslim country, how issues like alcohol consumption in public spaces should be regulated; and that there will be in this debate a place for arguments not pleasing to the more Westernized. This will be all right so long as basic democratic freedoms are respected and there is room for genuine debate. The people in the street are concerned that the room is disappearing at the expense of those who do not concur with the government. The fact that they can go out and chant defiant slogans against the Prime Minister (to face “only” plastic bullets) is indicative of a considerable degree of freedom people enjoy in Turkey, and the political progress the country has made over many years—some of which JDP will get credit for. But the fear is that in a few years there may not be such freedom any more. Better be safe than sorry.

Istanbul, 7 June 2013

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