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Turkish democracy gets the shake-up it needs


A whirling sufi wearing gas mask during the protests in Turkey in Gezi ParkThe calm of early summer in Istanbul, aspirant Olympic city, has been disrupted in the last week, with violent demonstrations grabbing headlines around the world. What started as a minor protest against a proposed building project in central Istanbul escalated dramatically, resulting in thousands of arrests, widespread destruction in the Taksim and Besiktas neighbourhoods and anti-government protests breaking out in other major cities.

Initially a small band occupied Gezi Park protesting against plans that had been pushed through with minimal community consultation, to build a shopping mall in this, one of the last green spaces in Istanbul's Beyoglu district. Police raids on the camp using water cannons and tear gas provoked outrage and drew more demonstrators.

When a larger protest last Friday was met with a similarly heavy-handed police response, even larger crowds amassed, chanting that the government should resign, and venting their displeasure with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, who dismissed the original protest as inconsequential. Some observers, indeed some participants, rather overenthusiastically remarked that this was Turkey's Tahrir Square.

There is clearly a great deal of displeasure with the government, and Erdogan has been a particular target for scorn, yet drawing parallels to Tahrir Square and predicting the eventual fall of the government are ill-advised.

For one, the political circumstances of Turkey and Hosni Mubarak's Egypt are entirely different. Mubarak's oligarchic regime was unelected; the government that Erdogan heads is popularly elected, having won power in 2002 and successively increased its share of the vote across three elections.

Erdogan himself remains the most popular politician in the country, drawing widespread support from a conservative and generally Islamically inclined voter base.

Bearing in mind the lacklustre oppositional parties that compete with Erdogan's Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) it is difficult to imagine, even after the outpouring of public resentment seen in the last week, that the Party will be toppled in the next elections, due in 2015. This is not to say that the political terrain in Turkey may not have been significantly altered.

Although Erdogan is an elected leader, he may be accused of displaying dictatorial tendencies.

True, his achievements are significant. He is often given credit for the great strides Turkey has made in the last decade. Its economy is strong, with GDP almost quadrupling since 2000. It is an increasingly confident performer on the world stage. He has maintained a steady focus on EU accession for Turkey (despite reluctance from France and Germany), while taking concrete steps to resolve the Kurdish issue that has bedevilled Turkey for decades.

He has also set in train a reworking of Turkey's constitution that would relieve the country of the strictures of a document imposed by the military in 1980, but would also create the opportunity for him to claim a new, US-style presidential post. The Olympic Games of 2020, for which Istanbul is bidding, would be the final feather in his cap.

However, through a decade in power, Erdogan's grip on the political agenda in Turkey has grown increasingly firm. His style has become more authoritarian, pushing through legislation with little debate, and he has cowed the media and brooked little dissent or criticism. While he generally enjoys the support of the electorate, his critics say he has a majoritarian approach to governance, behaving like a sultan, unaccountable and overbearing.

Whether Erdogan will learn anything from the protests remains to be seen.

Crowds in Taksim Square on the weekend of June 1 and 2 appeared to be made up of students and the urban classes who cannot be considered Erdogan's core constituency, but as protests spread more groups became involved, from Turkish TV stars to soccer fans. It became clear that protests were not about a green space in central Istanbul, but about Erdogan's autocratic style of governance. 

Crowds this weekend only grew larger in Istanbul and Ankara as well as other major cities Izmir and Antakya. Meanwhile, the AKP has planned counter rallies in Istanbul and Ankara this week.

After dismissing protesters as looters and blaming social media for inflaming the situation, Erdogan left for a diplomatic tour of North Africa, hardly an indication that he is prepared to size up the situation and listen to what Turkish citizens are saying. On his return to Turkey he remained defiant. Some ministers have suggested that the protests are an international conspiracy to unseat Erdogan.

Other senior government figures, however, have taken a more conciliatory approach, conceding that democracy amounts to more than just holding elections and that police reactions were excessive.

On balance the Erdogan government has been a positive force for Turkey, but its growing domination of the political sphere is unhealthy. These protests should act as a wake-up call so that either the government can redefine its approach or other political voices may rise up. Tahrir Square it may not be, but ultimately, these protests may lead to a rejuvenation of Turkish democracy.


William Gourlay headshotWilliam Gourlay is PhD candidate at Monash University, investigating political and ethnic identities in 21st-century Turkey. For the last week he has been in Istanbul.

Pictured: A whirling sufi wearing gas mask during the protests in Turkey in Gezi Park.

Topic tags: William Gourlay, Turkey, Istanbul, Arab Spring, Egypt, Mubarak, Tahrir Square



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Existing comments

I think, whether it has dawned on him or not, Erdogan's meter is about to expire. It reminds me of John Howard. Whatever strong support he gets from the Anatolian heartland the big movers and shakers and opinion makers are in Istanbul. Ankara is a Turkish Canberra. The big problem you didn't mention and which is not really openly discussed among the elite is the fact that 20-25% of Turks are not, in fact, Sunni Muslims (the only "official" Islam in Turkey) but Alevis (an offshoot of Shiísm and pretty much the same as the Alawis of Syria). Alevis have always leaned to secular Kemalism. I think there are enough Turks who don't want a more "Islamic" state. They are flexing their muscles, both in Turkey and in the diaspora. I for one would like an adjustment away from Erdogan to secularism. "Islamic" politics and politicians are usually self-centred opportunists using religion for their own ends. I think Erdogan does.

Edward F | 07 June 2013  

Thank you for a thorough and IMHO truthful analysis which gives a good picture for 'outsiders'.

Carolien Geurtsen | 08 June 2013  

Hi Edward, yes, you're right, for all Erdogans political manoeuvring his hasn't find a way to placate the Alevis. And, in fact, people I've met in Turkey this week have also said that he uses Islam as an political tool rather than out of real conviction. I think the real issue, though, rather than creeping "Islamic politics" is his paternalistic and domineering turn of late. Regards from Turkey!

William Gourlay | 09 June 2013  

I must agree with your summation, William. Erdogan's reaction, as reported in the Australian yesterday, was highly autocratic. Whilst I rejoice in the fact that the Army no longer stages coups in Turkey I think Erdogan has reached his "use by" date. The spectre of an AKP beholden to the extreme religious conservatives of rural Anatolia is not comforting. From my (generalist) reading and without your on-the-ground knowledge of the situation I think there are even those in Turkey who are raising the (hopefully dead and stone cold) spectre of the vanished Ottoman Empire. That is an entity I thought well buried with a stake through its heart.

Edward F | 12 June 2013  

I think that in democratic regimes the people's will must be respected, however if he is acting like an authoritarian he should have resigned.

Helenklin Ribeiro | 12 June 2013  

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