Turkey is living through remarkable days which will be long remembered. Many thousands of people have taken to the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other big cities, braving the teargas liberally sprayed by riot-police. Their cause: the future of Turkish politics and society. The protests, initially sparked by opposition to the revelopment of one of central Istanbul's few green spaces, thus reflect far more than a sudden upsurge of environmental concerns. This is a big, even historic, moment in Turkey.
The immediate concern to protect Gezi Park - adjacent to Istanbul's huge Taksim Square - should not be forgotten, for it also belongs to a mushrooming of environmental sentiment in Turkey over the past decade of rapid growth. Yet even highly publicised campaigns during this period, for example over the Ilisu dam in the country’s southeast - which would have involved drowning the ancient town of Hasankeyf - have failed to galvanise such a powerful public response. This time is different.
Today's Turkish urbanites are not rallying against the Ottomanist nostalgia dear to the ruling Justice & Development party (AKP); nor only over the transformation of a public space into a swanky shopping-mall (which would have included restoration of the historic Topçu military barracks which stand in the park); nor, despite the anarchist and communist flags, is kneejerk anti-capitalism the Occupy Gezi movement's primary motive (after all, most of the protesters are hardly the losers from AKP’s romance with the market).
At heart, the mass upheaval in Istanbul (and across urban Turkey) is about one individual: Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his ambition to shape Turkey in his own image. Erdoğan’s overwhelming presence in Turkish politics is what brings together liberals and nationalists, old-school secularists, leftist trade unionists, football fans and iPhone-carrying youth. Simply put, people have had enough of their leader’s arrogance. Anger has been piling up: most recently over the bomb-attacks at Reyhanlı, across the border from Syria, and proposed legislation placing limits on alcohol consumption.
Moreover, a new constitution is in the making which could vest the institution of the presidency with extensive powers, leaving Erdoğan himself first in line to inherit the beefed-up post. In this light, a movement triggered by the reordering of Istanbul’s urban lanscape also reflects deeper concerns about Turkey's political and social direction: from the leader's ambition to the AKP’s mix of conservative-Islamic values, market-friendly policies, and commitment to a strong state as the foundation of the country's public life.
On the defensive
The likelihood of their already powerful prime minister becoming president could be increased if the current peace process succeeds in ending the long-standing PKK insurgency and securing rights for the Kurds. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) might then support the AKP in changing the current parliamentary regime into a presidential republic.
An Erdoğan presidency backed by popular consent is a deeply unnerving and divisive prospect for many Turks. The prime minister's response to the protest explains why. He has vowed to press ahead with the Gezi Park project, while reminding the public of the millions of trees planted across Istanbul in recent years. His message to the protestors has been: if you have a problem with me, you have a problem with democracy, as such disputes are decided by the ballot-box not street pressure.Erdoğan even warned Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), that he could rally a million AKP supporters at his will. The worrying implication is that democratic governance is about majoritarian rule, not checks and balances guaranteeing the rights of those in a minority.
The strategy of defiance, however, has only inflamed the situation. The brutality of police has proven counterproductive, swelling the numbers of protesters and allowing them to celebrate ownership of Taksim Square on 1 June following the police's withdrawal. Erdoğan's typically brash and unapologetic speech did grudgingly concede that police had acted too heavy-handedly; if reports are correct that Turkey's more consensual president, Abdullah Gül, has intervened to encourage Erdoğan to compromise in order to calm passion, this may yet signal a political breach (perhaps even empowering the former AKP foreign minister to fight against his ally for another presidential term in 2014).
In any event, Erdoğan has already suffered an unexpected loss - even if it is largely symbolic at this stage. Just as Syria has shown the limits of his hubris in foreign policy, Gezi Park has shaken his aura of omnipotence in domestic matters.
After the beginning.
It is too soon, though, to write off the most successful operator in modern Turkish politics. Erdoğan's AKP remains the dominant political force; economic growth continues; peace in the Kurdish-populated southeast is a possibility; and ballots - the forthcoming municipal elections, the likely constitutional referendum in 2014, and the general election in 2015 - could yet do what teargas and batons cannot.
The opposition remains a poor match for the ruling party. The CHP is discredited by its past association with the military and the Kemalist "deep state", and irreconcilably split between reformist-minded social democrats and old-school hardline secularists. The street-protests in part reflect the failure of the CHP to mount a serious counteroffensive and effectively contain the AKP’s power-grabbing inclinations through the political process.
So the CHP can take little comfort from the protests (and the best the party could do in this crisis has been to cancel its own rally, thus depriving Erdoğan of the opportunity to strike at his favourite soft target). A good number of the Istanbul crowd are disgruntled liberals who supported the AKP as recently as 2010, on the grounds that it was the party fighting for more democracy, minority rights and accession to the European Union. Disappointment has not turned them into CHP voters, and many would be loath to see Kılıçdaroğlu take charge.
Whatever the long-term implications of the “Turkish spring”, as world media have already dubbed the protests, citizens of Turkey have reason to congratulate themselves. A vibrant civil society ready to stand up for its rights is a token of the “advanced democracy” Erdoğan is so fond of rhapsodising about. Turkey has won plaudits worldwide, east and west, adding to its soft power. This is an achievement worth celebrating even before the clouds of teargas have settled down around Taksim.