How Erdogan Fell From Grace

Turkey's prime minister and his AK Party alienated many citizens. Where will they go from here? 

Last week’s early-morning police raid on a group of people occupying a park in Istanbul has spread into a nationwide protest with calls for the resignation of the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The group was protesting a shopping-center construction project near Taksim Square in the central city. The tree-lined precinct known as Gezi Park has long been popular among the public and considered an oasis in a city otherwise increasingly overwhelmed by skyscrapers, large shopping centers and concrete buildings. In 2011, the city opened the way for the park to be replaced with a shopping center in the form of reconstructed early-nineteenth-century Ottoman army barracks.

Erdoğan has been a staunch and unyielding defender of the project at a time of growing opposition. At a first glance, the demonstrations and the riots appear to have been sparked by a longstanding local opposition, which regards tree cutting as the first step towards the realization of the shopping center. Yet, there is much more to this outburst of anger and opposition across the country than just a determination to save rows of majestic trees. These protests, therefore, beg the old quo vadis question: Where is Turkey going?

According to official accounts, the police raid and the subsequent developments provoked demonstrations in sixty-seven provinces across Turkey, and led to almost 1,500 injuries, one death and around 1,700 arrests as of June 3. The Turkish media’s failure to offer a live coverage of the initial stages of the demonstrations is seen as a reflection of government repression and the media’s reluctance to act against Erdoğan. This gave rise to lively exchanges on social media. A wide range of public figures—athletes, academics, actors, politicians and ordinary people from all corners of the country, as well as the international community—have protested the media and the police, lent support to the protests and called on Erdoğan to reconsider his position.

Beyond saving the park and the trees, the protests need to be seen as the culmination of simmering resentment towards the prime minister’s ever growing authoritarian rule and recent intrusion into individual lifestyles. This style of government was reflected in his reluctance to take appeals seriously—whether in the form of signature campaigns, pleas by public figures or a court injunction to stop the commencement of construction work in the park. His initial uncompromising reaction to the news about the demonstrations was a typical reflection of this authoritarian style and total disregard of public opinion.

This was aggravated by the fact that Taksim Square, next to the park in question, has long been a symbol of resistance, where in the past running battles regularly took place between the police and demonstrators. Only a month earlier, on May 1, Erdoğan objected to a demand by trade unions to celebrate the May Day. Instead, he drafted tens of thousands police officers into the area and Istanbul to deter and prevent any meetings. His growing reliance on the police to suppress public meetings and demonstrations was interpreted as a part of his emerging authoritarian style. This, with his tendency to support the police against national and international criticism for excessive brutality, is one of the factors fueling the current demonstrations.

Such authoritarian rule became increasingly visible after Erdoğan’s overwhelming victory in the 2011 national elections. This stands in sharp contrast to his first and second terms. Between 2003 and 2011, his AKP formed coalitions with liberal circles and became associated with important reforms that opened the way to democratization and further pluralism in Turkey. These reforms played a key role in accession negotiations with the EU starting in 2005.

In the last few years, however, this positive image of the AKP and the prime minister has been eroding. The government has been facing growing criticism with respect to violations against the freedom of expression. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Federation of Journalists flagged Turkey as the country with the largest number of journalists under detention, while many renowned journalists have been forced out of their jobs by the personal intervention of the prime minister. Erdoğan’s determination to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one and his open contempt for the notion of checks and balances as an obstacle to his ability to govern the country has been seen by many as evidence of authoritarian ambitions. Public opinion polls actually have shown that even among those who voted in support of AKP during the 2011 elections, the level of support for Erdoğan’s presidential system is less than 50 percent. The prime minister, however, reportedly dismissed these results as the AKP’s failure to convincingly explain the presidential system, rather than recognizing citizens as capable of judging matters for themselves.