The Taksim demonstrations in Turkey could be considered an important opening and a new phase in Turkey's development towards a more mature democracy, states Erik-Jan Zürcher.
The fact that I spent last week in Turkey – a pure coincidence, I was not one of the “foreign agents”- allowed me to witness some of the demonstrations and riots at first hand (in Izmir and Ankara) and follow the daily conversations in the country. The following is my take on the situation.
On the surface, the issue that set Turkey’s cities ablaze this week seems a small one: the destruction of a small and not particularly beautiful park in the heart of Istanbul to make way for a shopping mall disguised as a modern reproduction of a late-Ottoman artillery barracks. But the issue touches on a number of contested areas in contemporary Turkey on different levels. The first, small, group of protesters that occupied the camp, resisted the fact that the government of the Justice and Development Party is executing an extremely neo-liberal agenda, working hand-in-glove with big business and particularly with the real estate developers who have been such a big part of Turkey’s economic boom of the last decade. Everywhere the remaining nature in the wider Istanbul area has fallen prey to new shopping malls, high rises and even a Formula 1 circuit. This issue is one about which many environmentalists in Turkey feel deeply, but they are only a small minority.
What turned the small environmentalist protest into a mass-movement among the young was two things: extreme police brutality and the authoritarian attitude of the political leadership. Pictures of the police brutality displayed on Friday and Saturday last in Istanbul (with teargas, water cannons, plastic bullets and truncheons being used) against a peaceful protest spread over the internet like wildfire and mobilized masses of people, initially mostly students but later also older people who were deeply angered. Many people talked about the police acting as an occupying force against the children of their own country. Particularly nasty was the way unidentified men in civilian clothes attacked the protesters with wooden clubs, something I witnessed in Izmir on Saturday night.
In the protests and demonstrations that followed (and are still going on) all the pent up frustration of the educated middle class youth against the authoritarian and paternalist policies with which the AKP seeks to impose a uniform conservative and conformist culture on the country , burst out. This modern, well-educated middle class section of society, the product of Turkey’s rapid development, wants a society in which there is place for diversity and debate. Although militant Kemalist groups with a strong secularist agenda are part of the movement, what most demonstrators seem to want is a country where a student is free to wear a headscarf to school just as much as others are free to kiss in public or drink beer; where women decide on abortion and couples on the size of their family – all of it without interference from the state.
While President Gül and opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu did their best to manage the situation by calling for restraint and dialogue, Premier Erdoğan made things appreciably worse, when in his first official reaction he said that the government would not bow to “criminals” and that he did not need the approval of the opposition to rebuild the Taksim square. Adding insult to injury, he said that the Atatürk Cultural Centre on the square would be demolished as well and that a mosque would be built on the square. The Atatürk Culture Centre, built in the seventies is a hugely important symbol for secularists in Istanbul. So, in one go, Erdoğan again raised the spectre of islamization and showed that the government will not listen. It got worse, when, on his return from a trip to North Africa he told his audience that the government would not budge – the new building in Taksim might not become another shopping mall – it would still be built (and the park demolished).
Increasingly, over the past week PM Erdoğan, actively supported in this by the state television, has tried to criminalize the demonstrators as “vandals” and “drunkards.” He has fed conspiracy theories (never far under the surface in Turkey) by references to the hidden hand of “foreign agitators” who want to weaken Turkey and – this is a new one – to speculators who are after a rise in interest rates. In so doing he delegitimizes the protestors and comes close to calling them traitors.
This is at the heart of the problem. The government, and particularly the Prime Minister see democracy in very simple terms: the fact that they have won the elections (time after time) gives them the right to execute their programme without any regard for minorities of any kind. Ten years of success, both political and economic, have reinforced this belief. Not everyone in the party is happy with this. It is very significant the President Gül made the remark that “democracy is more than just elections.” This was widely reported. What seems to have escaped notice is that both Ibrahim Görmez, Turkey’s highest religious authority and the Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen have called for dialogue, openness and self-criticism and have condemned the violence. This may indicate that the protests may yet lead to a process of soul searching in Ankara.
That is Turkey’s best bet, because, impressive and emotional as the demonstrations are, they are the expression of the feelings of a minority in this country of 76 million: the young, urban, well-educated middle class. They are enraged, they are frustrated, they are articulate – but they have no political strength. Even with the support of important social groups like the Alevis, organized labour, the bar association and the Kurdish opposition, they probably cannot force out the government. Any speculation that this wave of protest spells the end of Tayyip Erdoğan as political leader are premature. He may be an authoritarian and intolerant leader, but his record of stable and rather able government and high economic growth has given him a loyal following. There is little doubt that his party can win the municipal elections in 2014 and the next general election as well.
Beyond the support of the mass of Turkey’s voters there is something more sinister as well: on his return from Tunisia the Prime Minister was greeted by ten thousand almost hysterical supporters, who literally offered to kill the demonstrators, if he would only let them. Erdoğan has so far restrained these militants who would like to reconquer Taksim, but they are ready. One of the most ominous moments this week was when a press conference by Ataturkists who supported the protest in Erdoğan’s home town of Rize was attacked by a violent mob. The mayor of Rize managed to defuse the situation with some difficulty.
For those, like myself, who see in the Taksim demonstrations an important opening and a new phase in Turkey’s development towards a mature democracy, the hope must be that there comes a moment when a significant part of the ruling elite, perhaps in conjunction with the business world, starts to see Tayyip Erdoğan’s confrontational and authoritarian policies as a liability, something that endangers Turkey’s social cohesion and economic stability. The hope must also be that this happens before state violence is replaced with mob violence. Erdoğan will not lose the elections, but he still has to go, because the Turkey that he, more than anyone else, has turned into such a success story in the last eleven years, has outgrown him.
For a radio interview with Professor Zürcher on the historical background of the demonstrations (in Dutch) at OVT, please click here.