A u-turn in Turkish politics? Gezi Park in perspective

The simmering dissent and dissatisfaction unleashed at Gezi Park may not be enough to topple AKP's majority, but it threatens their political agenda as well as Turkey's democratic consolidation.

Nathalie Tocci
3 June 2013

Conventional wisdom has it that Turkey’s recent economic successes and hyperactive foreign policy has been made possible by the domestic political stability ushered in by the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule. Since the turn of the century, Turkey has indeed become the 16th largest economy worldwide and aspires to climb up the ladder to 10th place by its 100th year anniversary in 2023. The resulting self-confidence of a rising Turkey has propelled Ankara to play an ever more influential – at times assertive – role in its region and beyond.

Underlying all this is Turkey’s political stability, encapsulated by the success of the AKP – and its leader Tayyip Erdoğan – in winning three consecutive elections and employing its remarkable political capital to overturn many of the country’s deepest political taboos. This narrative has not shied away from finger-pointing Turkey’s deficiencies, notably the growing shortcomings of the AKP’s political reform impulses, increasingly detached from the European agenda, or the government’s alleged neo-imperial aspirations in the former Ottoman space.

It is against this backdrop that the peaceful protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have caught international observers by surprise. Is Turkey’s political stability beginning to crack? Under the surface of the AKP’s unquestioned primacy, has a growing bubble of dissent finally burst? As put dramatically by Judy Dempsey from Carnegie Europe: "Is Erdoğan finished?"     

The growing bubble of dissent

As several seasoned observers of Turkey were quick to point out, the Istanbul protests were only ostensibly against the demolition of the small Gezi Park in Taksim Square in order to build yet another shopping mall in the city centre. The park, or more accurately the trees, became the object of dissent by a disparate group of protesters, prompting protests across the country following the police’s forceful intervention using tear gas to disperse the crowds. Secularists have balked at the newly minted evidence of the government’s Islamists inclinations, including the recent adoption of a law that severely restricts the marketing, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, justified by the Prime Minister by making explicit reference to religious tenets.

Alevis, whose tenuous relationship with the state is being tested by the escalating Syrian crisis – in particular the recent bombing in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı, are dismayed at the government’s decision to name the third bridge over the Bosphorous after Selim the Grim, the Ottoman Sultan remembered for his massacres of Alevi Muslims. Environmentalists and elite city dwellers are up in arms against the AKP’s continued construction frenzy, eager to cement over the city’s precious few green spots or erect another shopping mall on the site of Istanbul’s oldest movie theatre. 

Content aside, what unites this disparate group of dissenters, which rapidly mushroomed beyond Gezi Park, is the growing frustration with the government’s – and particularly Erdoğan’s – authoritarian style of governance. It is what growing segments in the country view as the Prime Minister’s disdain for compromise, consensual politics and deliberation, his majoritarian understanding of democracy, and his larger than life hierarchical and non-inclusive leadership that brought tens of thousands to the streets. The flip side of the coin is the growing frustration with the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) inability to effectively channel their concerns through parliamentary politics.

True to form, Erdoğan reacted to the protests by withdrawing police forces from Taksim Square and reproaching the use of excessive force, but confirming unequivocally that the construction project would go ahead as planned. The government also imposed a media blackout, exacerbated by the widespread self-censorship of the mainstream media. Equally in character, the CHP canceled its own rally and lamely attempted to ride the wave of the protest by turning it into yet another act of the Turkish domestic political play. 

A turning point… for what?

The question on the minds of many external observers is whether the Gezi Park protests mark a turning point in Turkish domestic politics. Has the Prime Minister’s perceived arrogance gone a step too far? Has it ignited a fire of dissent that cannot easily be put out without a noticeable U-turn in the government’s approach to politics and policy-making? That turning point is unlikely now. Noteworthy as the protests are for their resilience, mobilization and diffusion, their numbers hovered around the tens of thousands. One has to grudgingly admit that Erdoğan has a point when he defiantly rebutted: "I would … gather 200,000 where they gather 20, and where they gather 100,000, I would gather 1 million party supporters. Let's not go down that road." When it comes to sheer numbers, the government still enjoys a solid majority in the country.

Yet there are deeper implications of the protest, which cannot be washed away by crude headcounts. Concretely, the Turkish government is currently enmeshed in a double gamble. The first is ‘the process’ – süreç –  with the PKK. The strategy has won a critical first victory: in March 2013, on the occasion of the Kurdish Newroz celebrations, imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan called upon the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to retreat from Turkish territory and lay down arms. The next day the PKK unilaterally declared a ceasefire and eight Turkish hostages held by the PKK were released. By May 2013, the first group of outlawed PKK fighters left Turkey. The significance of this process cannot be downplayed. Yet the final die in the arduous road towards reconciliation has not been cast and many are the pitfalls along the way. Prime amongst these is what the AKP is actually willing to concede in terms of Kurdish individual and collective rights in the new constitution and whether these will meet the Kurdish red lines.

The second and related challenge is that of agreeing on a new civilian constitution. The snag here is that the AKP does not have the parliamentary numbers to go it alone. With its 326 seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, the AKP is a handful of seats short of the 330-seat majority required to put the draft constitution to referendum. Reaching agreement with the CHP and the nationalist party MHP is unlikely, particularly if the AKP insists on a presidential system in the new constitution. It is here that the süreç with the PKK and the attempt to reach a new constitution dovetail.

Ultimately, the AKP government seeks to kill two birds with a stone; first, to resolve the Kurdish question by negotiating an end of violence with the PKK. Second, with the Kurdish party (BDP), find a constitutional solution to the Kurdish question comprising enhanced citizenship and language rights and territorial autonomy, receiving BDP support for the AKP constitution in return. With the support of the independent BDP parliamentarians, the AKP would have sufficient votes to put its draft constitution to the people. The Prime Minister would hope to see a successful referendum vote on a new constitution in late 2013 or early 2014, clearing the way for the ensuing electoral cycle through local elections in March 2014 and the first direct elections for an empowered president in August 2014, in which Erdoğan would aim to run - and win.

There are reasonable chances that the Turkish government will succeed in its double gamble. Regional developments - notably Syrian and Iraqi - coupled with the domestic dynamics just outlined are converging into a powerful constellation of forces that render a Turkish-Kurdish agreement possible for the first time in the three decades-old conflict. Yet peace with the Kurds and the agreement and implementation of a civilian constitution that propels Turkish democracy to a higher gear are not one-shot make-or-break deals, but drawn-out complex processes in which ‘Turkey inc.’ must be organically brought on board. Already wide segments of the population, from nationalists to liberals, have critiqued the government’s public diplomacy around the Kurdish question, angered and confused by what they deem to be insufficient transparency and accountability in the five-month-old Kurdish process.

On top of this, the deep resentment and dissatisfaction with the constitution-making process has turned what ought to have been the crowning moment of Turkey’s democratic consolidation into yet another instance of polarizing majoritarianism. Majority rule, particularly like that enjoyed by Turkey’s ruling party, can do miracles in breaking taboos, be these regarding the previously sacrosanct role of the military in Turkish politics, the dominant understanding of Turkish secularism or the entrenched Kurdish question. Yet seeing these processes through to their happy end requires the ability to reverse the current approach and engage openly and horizontally the plurality of Turkish society.

More broadly what is at stake here is the ability of Turkey to genuinely become a consolidated democracy, one in which elections are but one among several fundamentals, alongside sound and well balanced institutions, a body of protected rights and freedoms, and a political culture of deliberation, openness and tolerance. Romantic and unfashionable as it may sound, this author still firmly believes that the EU, through a credible accession process with Turkey, still has a potentially powerful sway over the country’s overall political dynamics. EU engagement can set the standards of Turkey’s democratization and provide a joint roof under which diverse political forces can converge. Here too an emerging constellation of factors, ranging from the Eastern Mediterranean gas finds to the prospects for a multi-tiered Europe emerging from the Eurozone crisis, suggest that a virtuous dynamic between Turkey and the EU cannot be written off. It only awaits real leadership in both Turkey and Europe to be ignited.  

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