Demonstrators hold an image of one of the young protesters killed on the third anniversary of Gezi Park protests. in Ankara, May 31, 2016. Press Association imag. All rights reserved.The last few days in Turkey have been nothing short of a nightmare. What many thought would never happen happened again: a military junta tried to overthrow the government. Whether it was due to a lack of coordination, the resolution of the coup coalition within the military to act at the last minute, or the thousands of people taking to the streets to stop the coup, the junta was—to everyone’s relief – unsuccessful. Many agree that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan will gain unlimited power from this, using the coup attempt to further curtail opposition and push through a regime change from a parliamentary to a presidential system. However, particularly western media has largely failed to take into account the role the AKP’s political base will play in this process and how it may change and direct the party’s and President Erdoğan’s future course.
Friday night, the night of the attempted coup d’etat, was the first time in the recent history of the Turkish Republic that such a large segment of conservatives and religious citizens went out to own the streets (apart from party meetings) in the name of democracy, or at least for their definition of democracy. Though some commentators and politicians have argued that different segments of society averted the coup together, displaying a rare show of political unity in Turkey, it is probably safe to say that most of the protestors at the scene of the attempted coup were either AKP voters or at least ideologically close to the AKP.
This matters because it has always been, since 2002, President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan at the center of attention, with Turkish politics notoriously circling around his persona. The AKP has used Erdoğan’s political leverage not only to strengthen its rule in Turkey but also to push through a harsh neoliberal agenda. While the extent of social and political polarization in Turkey has guaranteed Erdoğan and the AKP high support in elections, it has been argued that in recent years the increasingly paternalistic style of both Erdoğan and the party, which has become somewhat ignorant of the daily challenges faced by Turkish citizens, has led to the party’s alienation of its political base. This also explains the loss of votes in the June 2015 elections.
On Friday night, Erdoğan naturally played a major role in mobilizing the masses when he connected to the private news channel CNN Türk via FaceTime, urging “his people” to take to the streets to advert the coup. And it was these people who died, were injured, chanted, and – as it appears – lynched a number of soldiers that night, who were declared heroes and martyrs after the coup was averted. The park on which Erdoğan planned to rebuild the military barracks that were there during the Ottoman Empire, around which the protests evolved, remained as a park and does so today.
During the anti-government Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, Erdoğan clearly envisioned this sort of mobilization, organizing countless “national will” (milli irade) meetings. But in this regard he failed: no significant counter-movement from his own electoral base emerged. The “national will” meetings the AKP set up during this time seemed too organized, too stiff, with people being brought to the squares in buses, all wearing the same AKP hats and holding the same-sized Turkish flags in their hands. Accordingly they did not leave much of an impression but instead became a frequent subject of mockery on social media. The Gezi protests ended about a month after they had started, a fact not due to counter-mobilization but violence-prone riot police leaving numerous protesters dead and injured. And, most importantly, the park on which Erdoğan planned to rebuild the military barracks that were there during the Ottoman Empire, around which the protests evolved, remained as a park and does so today.
In my own encounters I frequently noticed that many AKP supporters were not only alienated by the course taken by the Gezi protests but also by the behavior of their then Prime Minister Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s provocative style and the stubbornness with which he acted during the Gezi protests were met with irritation rather than unwavering support among his own constituency. So they stayed home. They did not necessarily support Gezi, but they were not motivated enough to crash it either. This inability to mobilize the crowds clearly scarred Erdoğan’s otherwise boundless confidence. Since 2013 Erdoğan has mentioned the Gezi uprisings over and over again and so has the media close to the government. They have labeled the events a “coup” against the government, including conspiracy theories involving “western powers.” In fact, many commentators have drawn the conclusion that Erdoğan is “obsessed” with Gezi.
Thanks to the failed military coup, many have commented that Erdoğan, finally, got his own Gezi. Not surprisingly, he joyously declared the Tuesday after the incident that the military barracks he had planned for Gezi park will now be built “no matter whether they want it or not.” Who Erdoğan obviously refers to as “they” are not the ones who plotted the coup d’etat but Gezi protestors and their supporters. The Turkish president at that point seemed to have no interest in seizing the moment for building a broader anti-coup coalition and possibly reaching some sort of ceasefire with societal opponents.
Political sociologist Cihan Tuğal a few days after the attempted coup argued that this is a well-calculated risk. He wrote, “given the pro-regime numbers on the streets (and soldiers once again declared an enemy of the nation), the fascistic actors within the regime have the opportunity to sustain mass mobilisation and take the country in a more totalitarian direction.” This would entail a win-win situation for Erdoğan and the AKP: they will be able to enhance their power while reinstating their organic relationship with the people. The greater part of the AKP’s base is gaining unprecedented political agency, and it is important to closely watch the path this agency is taking.
While this is still a very likely (and certainly scary) scenario, it remains to be seen how much the AKP and Erdoğan will actually be able to direct and control the masses they finally mobilized. That this might not be as easy as many commentators and probably Erdogan himself thought, started to become clear over the last week, as the Turkish people slowly got over their first shock.
On the one hand oppositional parties and groups started to claim the streets not only to protest the coup but also to challenge the current political regime and demand real democracy. On the other hand, as writer Ömer Laçiner notes, given the visuals of male protestors lynching soldiers that had already surrendered, not all AKP supporters necessarily seem to identify with some of the crowd that spilled out into the streets on the night of the coup. It is probably safe to argue that neither Erdoğan, nor the AKP would be interested in alienating their own middle and upper class constituency. Given these two factors, it is no coincidence that Erdoğan’s discourse seems to have gradually softened over the last days and his plans to rebuild the military barracks in Gezi Park were not mentioned again. At the end of the day the AKP still has an economy to manage.
What course Turkish politics and society will take in the future is unclear and there is much reason to be pessimistic. But one thing seems certain: the greater part of the AKP’s base is gaining unprecedented political agency, and it is important to closely watch the path this agency is taking.
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