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.
Erdoğan’s grandiose developmental schemes have been ambitious: opening a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea; the construction of a huge new airport in the wooded lands north of Istanbul (considered the lungs of the city); a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait; and nuclear power plants. Yet the projects have also increased the level of resentment in the country. The source of resentment has not necessarily been the result of the projects per se, but reflect his reluctance to listen to the public. Most recently, the government’s decision to introduce legislation to restrict the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages has also been seen as, at best, a terribly majoritarian understanding of democracy. This, and the ban on Turkish Airline hostesses wearing red lipstick, has quickly become a divisive issue. There is a growing feeling that the government wants to impose its conservative social values on people who do not share them. There is deep concern that these restrictions reflect a constant governmental intrusion into private lifestyles. The fact that an AK Party member of parliament called the demonstrators “drunkards” shows the failure of at least some in the governing party to appreciate what these demonstrations truly signify.
Finally, these demonstrations also needs to be seen in light of the growing public concern about the way the government is handling the Syrian crisis, and subsequent fears that the crisis is beginning to spill into Turkey. It is clear that politics in Turkey will not be the same once these demonstrations calm down. The demonstrations are at least partly a reflection of deep-seated differences between a section of the public and the prime minister himself. The public, which feels increasingly ignored and that liberal values they have come to cherish—including pluralist democracy, respect for social diversity and the Western way of life—are slowly being undermined. And the protests occur at a critical time, when Erdoğan faces challenges such as the Kurdish peace process, the drafting of a new constitution, revamping an economy that has significantly slowed down, and managing an ever-complex Syrian crisis.
Fork in the Road
There appear to be two paths that the prime minister and the AK Party can pursue as they face the demonstrations and their aftermath. The first road takes these demonstrations as a wake-up call and uses them to adjust the course of the government. Such an adjustment will require a serious and candid look at the criticisms coming from the public and also from the AKP’s ranks about the style of rule that the prime minister is associated with. This will also require a reexamination of what kind of Turkey with which the AKP wants to be identified. This could be a plural Turkey capable of developing a public space for people from all backgrounds, irrespective of their cultural, ethnic, religious and social background—a Turkey that is finally capable of accepting and cherishing its own diversity.
There are some early signs from people close to the prime minister, as well as Istanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbaş, expressing readiness to seriously look into the question of police brutality and reexamine the construction project in question. The prime minister appears to have moved somewhat in that direction on Sunday, when he seemed to have suggested that the government may give up on the idea of a shopping center while keeping the reconstruction of the barracks in the form of a museum and conference halls, with a park within it where the parade grounds once were. Only time will tell, however, whether Erdogan will be able to adjust his style of rule and respect for liberalism.
At the same time, Topbaş may be keener to move in a more positive direction as he clearly would not want to see Istanbul lose its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games and undermine the city’s image as a major global center of tourism and business. He may also be very concerned about making sure that in the upcoming local elections in 2014, an AKP candidate stands a chance to win. There would also be a significant cost attached for Erdoğan if he were to lose support in Istanbul. Hence politics may indeed help steer the AKP back to an attitude reflective of their first term of office.
There is also, of course, the unfortunate possibility that Erdoğan and the AK Party become more entrenched in their authoritarian and majoritarian style of rule. The protests could be attributed to a disenchanted and marginalized minority, whose views and values need not be taken into consideration beyond being labeled as troublemakers unwilling to adjust to a new, conservative Turkey. The prime minister has already made dismissive statements about the protesters as pillagers (çapulcu) and marginal people, as well as blamed social media for spreading lies. Similarly, the governor of Istanbul appointed from Ankara suggested the protesters were manipulated by external powers.