This is not a revolution. This is not the mobilization of the western oriented and secular middle classes only against a popular leader. This is a democratic quest from below to ‘get back to the basics’ against Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian and conservative ruling AK Party and the ideologically driven and impotent opposition parties.
Turkish democracy was illiberal ten years ago when the AKP rose to power and signed the death warrant for many dysfunctional political parties that used unstable coalition governments for populist and Kemalist interests. In addition to the political crises caused by coalition governments, the country has also experienced two economic crises; one in 1999 and the other in 2001. The AKP ensured economic stability by regulating the banking system, opening Turkey to the outside world and encouraging businessmen to invest not only domestically but also abroad. Turkey’s annual GDP growth has averaged 5% over the last ten years of AKP rule. As Jeffrey Sachs recently highlighted, the AKP maintained economic growth and stability by fixing some of the basic problems of the Turkish economy.
Until 2005, EU accession reforms kept the AKP on democratic tracks despite little progress in civil-military relations, citizenship or the Kurdish and Alevi issues. Democratic reforms followed, however. Such reforms usually targeted institutions and attempted to address the worst wounds. The Ergenekon and Balyoz trials revealed the ambivalent relationship between the military and secular segments of civil society organizations as the ‘Republic protests’ were sponsored by the NGO’s founded and funded by leading generals. Yet, the AKP gradually put an end to the dominance of the secular nationalist military establishment even if the means deployed were coloured by revenge.
The judiciary was the next battle in the cultural wars between the secular opposition and the conservative AKP. Constitutional amendments were democratic, but did not attempt to transform institutions. Rather, the cultural wars were over taking full control of the bureaucracy in an attempt to consolidate AKP’s power. Again, in a highly ideological conflict, no meaningful and challenging opposition came from opposition parties. The AKP, however, managed to amend the undemocratic 1982 Constitution and further democratization attempts helped the AKP receive more than 50 percent of the vote in 2011. This, of course, convinced Mr. Erdogan that he was the voice of the majority. This was a majoritarian democracy and to this day Turkey remains an illiberal democracy despite important democratization reforms.
Urban projects, on the other hand, accelerated in a crony capitalist fashion in Istanbul, Ankara and developing cities. Although the secularists were angry, they could not offer any meaningful policies to stop the construction-obsessed government, thanks to their ideological stance and impotent leadership. In 2012, Prime Minister Erdogan announced his insane project, Channel Istanbul. Despite some important criticisms from all political parties and civil society, the project continues to this day. Last fall, a massive construction aimed to transform Taksim Square. Few protested against the government although many showed resentment at the changing nature of Taksim. Urban transformation of Gezi Parki was part of this massive project, but only a handful of people wanted the government to stop demolishing the Park and uprooting the trees. The trees and the Park are symbolic of the current political protests and of mobilization.
Instead of blaming the authoritarian inclinations of the AKP government, one should be specific about major problems that the government did not improve or used for its own interests. Two major problems stand out; freedom of speech and government-media relations. Mr. Erdogan has not been tolerant of criticism as a charismatic popular leader and the number of journalists in prison peaked last year. Mr. Erdogan’s flawed view of democracy embraces conservative media establishments, while he sues many journalists for criticizing him or his government. The conservative media that was the victim of the February 28 post-modern coup has largely been supportive of the AKP government. Given the business-government relationship in Turkey, the media turned a blind eye to many problems as they sought rent from the government through evergrowing construction work, technology and advertisement contracts. In other words, a basic principle of democracy did not function as journalists were either persecuted or coopted while businessmen sought rent. Accountability never became a fundamental principle of functioning democracy.
On top of that, add general discontent about Turkey’s policy towards Syria and the increasing level of police brutality. Many rallies have been organized to oppose Turkey’s anti-Assad Syria policy but little has changed. An ordinary observer can easily recognize the everyday forms of protests ranging from changing TV channels when Mr.Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu, Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister, spoke about the civil war in Syria to following Syrian TV channels and increasing intolerance against the conservative segment of society.
The protests after the bomb explosion in Reyhanlı were a prime example of an angry nation. The protests resulted in a brutal crackdown by the police force and the government blamed foreign powers as usual. Was this new? No. The Turkish police have always been brutal, especially when the Turkish state identifies its own citizens as a threat. Since the AKP sent the military establishment to its barracks however, institutionally the Police department has become a primary tool of the government, which chose not to reform it. The Police, however, dealt with democratic protests slightly differently as they used tear gas rather than sticks. As I mentioned in my column last month, perhaps Turkey has never used tear gas in its 90-year history as much as it has done in the last ten years.
Obviously, the trouble with the AKP government is its majoritarian and illiberal understanding of democracy. Although democratization packages went through the motions of being implemented and negotiations to resolve the Kurdish question continue positively as of now, major deficits in Turkish democracy are related to fundamental rights and a lack of checks and balances. The AKP’s attempt to restrict alcohol marketing, selling and consumption, and restrict contraceptives and abortion made headlines last month. Therefore, many conclude that the current protests were led by seculars loyal to Kemalist state. Indeed, Mr. Erdogan claims that these protests are sponsored by certain secular groups.
Yet, even a cursory examination of their identity reveals that they constitute a large group ranging from leftist university students to LGBT groups to Islamist anti-capitalists. Both the AKP government and the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), attempted to change the course of protests. While Mr. Erdogan claimed that his supporters (50%) might go to the streets in counter protests, the CHP attempted to turn the protests into its own political campaign. The pure Kemalist chants like “We’re the sons and daughters of Ataturk” are a result of this hijack attempt. Yet, the protestors largely remain unaffiliated with any political party and instead demand immediate guarantees regarding fundamental human rights. Many clearly criticized the CHP for its opportunism and asked fellow protestors not to follow political parties. The CHP will probably pay the price for not producing challenging and constructive opposition policies and trying to hijack the protests.
Perhaps the AKP’s biggest mistake was using state repression to such excess. The number of protestors immediately increased and the protests spread to major cities in Turkey after the Police used tear gas against peaceful protesters indiscriminately. However, cities in Central Anatolia, south eastern and eastern Turkey did not experience meaningful protest waves in the main which suggest that the Kurdish people and conservatives alike are less supportive of these protests. Alevis, however, remain enthusiastic and demand that the government changes the name of the to-be-constructed Boshporous bridge which was named after Selim the Grim, the first Ottoman Khalifa who persecuted the Alevi community. The Turkish media’s calculated indifference to these protests also kindled anger as only one national TV channel broadcast the protests. A media that does not function as a check on the government will not be able to survive in the coming days and people will definitely question business relations between the media and the government.
Although the government has apologized to citizens for extreme use of violence and acknowledged its mistake, the protests will continue until Mr. Erdogan, who conducted a personal vendetta against the protests, individually apologizes to protesters and investigates the wrongdoings of his government and security forces. There are at least three risks that these protests bring with them; a slowdown in peace negotiations, increasing ideological conflict and aggressive sectarianism in Antakya. The peace negotiations might fail if protests continue. Both AKP and CHP use incendiary rhetoric. Antakya poses a great threat to societal peace since a young Alawite protester was killed by unknown people during the protests and there is an accumulated frustration against the government’s Syria policy and Syrian Sunni immigrants.
In sum, these protests open a new page in the history of Turkish democracy and show the need to go back to basics and ensure that fundamental rights and the basic tenets of democracy function in Turkey. These protests mark the beginning of a transformation to a liberal democracy. This time, however, the change will be from the bottom and reform packages will not remain theoretical. Personally, the price of such brutality will cost the power-corrupted Mr. Erdogan his longstanding dream: presidency!