Why the Turkish protests are necessary, but not sufficient

The crackdown on Turkish protesters and Prime Minister Erdogan's refusal to accept the demonstrations as legitimate represent another deviation from the country's fragile commitment to democracy. But this may also offer a new hope for the leftist opposition in Turkey - will they take it?

Aslan Amani
10 June 2013

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the opposition CHP (Republican People's Party). Demotix/Fulya Atalay. All rights reserved.

The governing AKP's response to the demonstrations that have engulfed Turkey in recent weeks is tarnishing the country's reputation as an imperfect yet noteworthy outpost of democracy in a region full of authoritarian regimes. The brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors, the ongoing mass arrests, and Prime Minister Erdogan's refusal to accept the demonstrations as a legitimate expression of public frustration represent another outrageous deviation from the country's fragile commitment to democracy.

Those who have looked to Turkey as a relatively successful case of democracy-building in a region where such attempts have generally resulted in catastrophic failure are left wondering what it will take to fix Turkey's malfunctioning democracy. A lot has already been written about the social dynamics of the resistance movement, including incisive analyses of the long-amassed grievances that have galvanised protestors across the nation and the numerous ways in which the Prime Minister's actions have undermined democracy. Here I want to draw attention to the implications of the current situation for democratic institutions.

Although the movement that has grown out of Istanbul's Taksim Square is beautiful, powerful, and necessary, on its own it cannot solve Turkey's problems. Large scale demonstrations like those taking place in Turkey can send clear and forceful messages to rulers, and can even bring down unpopular governments, but they cannot, on their own, mend the institutional defects that necessitated such an extraordinary action in the first place.

Civic vigilance is a democratic virtue that can stand as a bulwark against the abuse of governmental authority, but it is neither fair, nor realistic to expect a large group of people to remain in the country's squares for an extended period of time. The recent history of peaceful uprisings – in the post-Soviet space and elsewhere – tells that as protestors grow tired, the movements tend to lose momentum and those in power tend to revert to their previous, comfortable positions of dominance. Furthermore, with the experience gained from breaking the resistance of dissenters, the governments can become even less vulnerable to the future expressions of dissent. Thus, the success of the protest movement hinges on its capacity to encourage institutional reform, and engender new political alternatives. If a reform agenda does not emerge, and political alternatives do not materialize, it is likely that whatever gains the movement achieves will be marginal in scale and short-lived.

The above seems even truer in the Turkish case than in other examples of popular unrest where protesters resist the regimes that refuse to cede power through elections. In the latter case, getting rid of a dictator is itself a giant step forward. However, in a country like Turkey, where the potential for peaceful transfer of power through elections has not been exhausted, toppling an elected government cannot be the main contribution of demonstrations to democracy, because this can be done in a less messy way through electoral mechanisms. Moreover, the Taksim protests make obvious some systemic shortcomings of Turkish democracy that go beyond Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian style of government. The latter may well be the immediate cause of the protests, but it is neither the sole nor the most fundamental cause.

Prime Minister Erdogan has already made it clear that he does not think he has done anything wrong, and does not intend to make any serious changes to the way he runs the country. Luckily, democracy is as much about the official oppositions as it is about the governing parties. If the government does not want to listen, the oppositions can, and should.

Unfortunately, in Turkey the opposition parties have failed in ways quite similar to the AKP government. The main opposition, the CHP, have been repeatedly contradicting the social democratic values for which they claim to stand. They have been anti-minority rights, have sided with the military, and have even resisted civil rights reforms. These inconsistencies, have, unsurprisingly, alienated many young voters of left-liberal or social democratic persuasions – a segment of the electorate that could take on the burden of organising and moving the party forward just like the way the conservative segments brought the new and obscure AKP into power roughly a decade ago.

The failures of the opposition parties to reach out to their natural allies have left the Prime Minister in an electorally rather comfortable position. To be sure, the absence of a credible centre-left voice has been an important shortcoming of Turkey's political landscape for decades. However, the need for such a voice was less intensely felt when the military was largely responsible for setting the boundaries of legitimate political activity or when the political right was as divided and fragile as the left. Now that the Government has effectively (and rightly) curtailed the military's political ambitions, and AKP has become the most powerful right-wing party not just in Turkey, but arguably in the whole of Europe, the absence of an alternative of comparable strength from the left has grown from being another weakness of the system into a problem that puts the survival of Turkish democracy at risk.

The leader of the main opposition, finally, may have a historic opportunity to galvanize the different classes of people protesting in Taksim around a viable centre-left alternative to the right-wing AKP. For this to happen, however, the CHP has to shun the anti-Kurdish, isolationist, and statist elements of its platform, and espouse a more modern, cosmopolitan, and social democratic agenda. Putting forward a more consistent political platform and reaching out to the progressives who have disowned, or stayed away from, the party due to its decades-long entanglement with anti-democratic forces and ideals will determine the extent to which the party can become electorally competitive and render the Prime Minister more vulnerable.

The electoral map of Turkey suggests that the opposition still has a chance to upset Prime Minister Erdogan's Islamists. However, if the leadership of the main opposition continues to regard the letter of the founding documents as more worthy of allegiance than its republican spirit, and refuses to broaden the party's appeal, the decline of Turkey's democracy will continue. More troublingly, the disarray among Turkey's opposition politicians has begun to resemble what neighbouring states such as Russia and Azerbaijan were going through a decade ago. There, too, opposition parties failed to outgrow dysfunctional ideologies and platforms and shunned radical makeovers until the governing parties grew monstrous, too dominant to depose through elections.

The Turkish opposition should feel emboldened by the courage and selfless sacrifice of the anti-government demonstrators. But instead of merely spouting triumphalist rhetoric, they should work on re-branding themselves as a modern, forward-looking force by tapping into the energy and creativity of the resistance movement. That the government has clearly failed to live up to its democratic responsibilities is not the worst thing that could happen in a democracy. The simultaneous failure of the oppositions to live up to theirs is far worse.

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