Is this the ‘Turkish Spring’? Is Taksim Square the new ‘Tahrir Square’? Not really – but the protests against the Turkish government should still serve as a wakeup call for the authorities, if they’re far-sighted enough to learn from them.
Beginning spontaneously, the demonstrations started as a small protest against the Istanbul municipality’s plans to completely change the face of Taksim Square. Severe police violence against these initial protestors led to tens of thousands descending to the streets, organising quickly through various social media networks. Many of the images looked familiar – particularly those of peaceful protestors facing down numerous interventions of water cannons and brutal tear gas, refusing to be dispersed. But do these unfortunate scenes mean we can describe what is happening in central Istanbul the beginning of a ‘Turkish Spring’, and Taksim Square the Turkish equivalent of Egypt’s Tahrir Square?
Not really. The Arab uprisings were – and are – revolts against dictatorships that responded to protests with iron fists leading to hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of deaths. Entire generations of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in 2011 had never known free and fair elections. But Turkey has been engaged in a democratic experiment since 1950, in spite of the military coups that interrupted it four times. Despite the shortcomings of his government, Tayyip Erdoğan was elected in free and fair elections — in fact, three consecutive times in a row over more than 10 years, with a steady increase of votes each time. Polls also show that Erdoğan’s party still has around 50 percent of the votes, double of his closest rival, the leader of the secularist-nationalist People’s Republican Party.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between free elections and a fully functioning pluralist democracy. With the former, you can still have a majoritarian abuse of power, like what is currently being witnessed in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood government. While very different and much further along its democratic experiment as compared to Egypt, participatory democracy is sorely lacking in Turkey as well. Erdoğan certainly enjoys electoral legitimacy – that cannot be doubted – but a disturbing pattern is emerging from his rule. He is becoming intolerant towards criticism, particularly from the media, and he has been increasingly rejectionist of any participation from other camps for major political decisions. Indeed, his approach has been to ‘sell’ the final decision after it has been taken, rather than try to build buy-in from the start. The unspoken logic seems to be: since he won a majority at the ballot box, he has the right to call the shots unilaterally, without due regard for other groups in Turkey. That may be one way to rule – but it has its costs. Majoritarianism continues to fail abysmally in Egypt, as the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly shows little evidence of competency – while the relatively more progressive AKP has far more skill at governing, the protests show that there is still a good deal of discontent.
Erdoğan has certainly attracted the ire of his opponents more prominently recently. He named Istanbul’s new intercontinental bridge after an Ottoman Sultan, who is widely respected among the Sunni majority, but also seen by the Turkish Alevi minority as a bloody tyrant; and he’s implemented limitations on alcohol consumption, which infuriated secularist Turks, who feel that a conservative and intimidating Erdoğan threatens their lifestyle. Erdoğan has other illiberal enemies as well: nationalist groups despise Erdoğan for initiating a peace process with the PKK, the Kurdish separatist guerrilla army, while communist groups condemn him for being “an American collaborator,” & an enemy of the Assad regime in Syria, which they hold dear.
These protests weren’t begun by any of these groups – and Erdoğan’s government made a grave mistake by not restraining the police, resulting in state brutality upon the protestors. Indeed, had the police not responded so viciously, it’s likely the protests would have fizzled out quite quickly. That brutality brought out many Turks without any particular political agenda onto the streets, including those who took seriously the allegations of corruption with regards to the construction projects. Perhaps less than interested in the serious environmental issue that results from the loss of green spaces (which is rare indeed in Istanbul), many political groups then found a locus for their cumulative discontent.
Nevertheless, none of this means that Erdoğan has to resign, as some protestors have demanded: he is the most popular Turkish Prime Minister in the past half-century, and while thousands went on the streets to protest him, millions who support him remained in their homes. Yet that ought not be a reason for Erdoğan to be complacent either. Indeed, it is he who needs to take the greatest lesson from all this. He and his government ought to recognise that the ballot box is not the only thing that counts in truly participatory democracy – and those that govern the largest Arab country on the other side of the Mediterranean sea should acknowledge the same. Here, there are indeed some similarities – as governments in both Turkey and Egypt need to identify that the lack of consensus does come at a price, and causes unnecessary tensions.
Unlike President Morsi of Egypt, however, Prime Minister Erdoğan has a chance to turn this around quickly. He can still be a leader for all Turks, those that support him and those that do not – or he can plough recklessly ahead, and pay the consequences for autocratic hubris. The former path will only mean a brighter political future ahead of him. The latter, however, could be the beginning of a long and painful fall. This is not a Turkish Spring – but Erdoğan could yet turn it into one, against himself.
Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News and the Star, lives in Istanbul. Follow him at @AkyolInEnglish
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