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Guest post: Enter the Turkish Winter?

Guest post: Enter the Turkish Winter?

This is a guest post by Burak Kadercan, a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading.

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What is happening in Turkey?

This is the question that many around the globe have been asking for a week. To be fair, people were already interested in Turkey before protests broke out on May 28th, but their curiosity was directed more at its miracles. In the past decade, Turkey has become known as the “model” country for the rest of the Muslim world, proving — almost single-handedly — that political Islam and democracy can co-exist. According to all dimensions of power, Turkey has also been on the rise. Its economy is growing while much of the world struggles with recession. Its voice is being heard and consulted in the regional politics of the Middle East as well as global affairs. Turkey also projects a peculiar sort of soft-power across Eurasia and the Middle East through its popular TV dramas and movies. While it might have been “news” for Turkey to show up on global media in some shape or form 15 years ago, Turkey and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have now become staples of the global media.

The rising profile of Turkey cannot be exaggerated. When I moved from Istanbul to the so-called Western world more than 10 years ago, people were asking me if Istanbul was its capital. Until last week, they were asking what I thought of the latest episode of Muhtesem Yüzyil — a royal soap opera about Ottoman Empire’s most glorious century (it was the sixteenth) that is broadcast in dozens of countries — or advice for where to eat in Istanbul next time they visit. Now, people keep asking me a different question: what is happening?

“What is happening?” is in fact the wrong question, for something has been happening in Turkey for quite some time. What the world has come to see lately is not the problem, but its symptoms. The symptoms are the country-wide protests and accompanying police brutality, which itself has come to be defined in terms of tear gas (or, simply “gas” in the Turkish lexicon). The chain of events, as any international media outlet can tell you (Turkish media have been playing dead until very recently), started with a handful of peaceful protestors comprised largely of environmentalists and university students occupying Gezi Parki, a relatively small park that is situated right by the Taksim Square, which is not only the financial and cultural epicentre of the city, but also the witness of and meeting place for many mass protests.

Gezi Parki was set to be demolished so that an Ottoman-era barracks that itself had been destroyed in 1940s could be reconstructed (alongside a hyper-mall, hotels, and possibly a mega-mosque) in its place (to be sure, the barracks came before the park). The initial protestors were not political, as the term is used in the Turkish context. They were not criticizing the government per se, but a particular decision that they thought not only would destroy the only green space left in the center of the city, but also was forced on the city without proper dialogue and consultation with its inhabitants. Just a few days before the incident broke out, Erdogan had delivered the final words: “we have made the decision.” This was not the first time that Erdogan used these words when sealing the deal over a contentious issue.

On May 28th, the police forces responded to occupiers with their signature method: gas. In an interesting twist — interesting for Turkish politics at least — the occupiers found extensive support from thousands, who responded not only to the destruction of Gezi Parki, but also, and even more so, to the unprovoked police brutality that has become the norm and not the exception in the last couple of years. Increasing intensity of the “gas bombardment” to disperse the demonstrators, whose numbers were growing exponentially, then triggered a chain reaction. Before anyone knew it, tens of thousands of citizens across the country took to the streets in order to show support for the demonstrators in Taksim. This was most certainly a spontaneous incident. The national news channels had embarrassingly turned a blind eye to what had been happening in the streets, and the protestors coordinated their efforts mainly through Facebook and Twitter.

So, who are the protestors? It is easier to identify them by highlighting who they are not. They are not a homogenous group (not by a long shot). They are not bound by religious beliefs, ethnicity, or even political leanings. What unites them is their anger at AKP, but even more so, at Erdogan. Erdogan, in turn, has done little in the way of calming the demonstrators and defusing the situation. If anything, he called the protestors “looters,” framed the protests in “ideological” terms, blamed the left-wing opposition party for taking part in what he presented as yet another scheme to illegally topple AKP, and in a most alarming turn announced that he and his party were “barely restraining” the so-called “fifty per cent” (which stands for AKP voters per 2011 elections). In an even more frightening and explicit note, Erdogan suggested that if the opposition brings “one hundred thousand” demonstrators to the streets, he can easily summon “one million” to counter them.

The message behind invoking the fifty per cent is hard to miss for Turkish audiences. First, Erdogan is not shy about showing that he thinks that the protestors do not stand for the “people;” this is an attempt by marginalized political groups at making AKP look bad. Second, there is a silent crowd that supports AKP and opposes the protestors, if still from their homes. Third, if conditions change, the fifty per cent can leave their homes and confront the demonstrators in the streets.

As I write this, demonstrations are still vibrant, if not raging on, across the country. Erdogan is on an extended 4-day visit throughout North Africa, which left crisis-management duties to his deputies. Defining the situation as political unrest may be an exaggeration at this moment, but things are no longer as calm and dreamy as they had appeared to the rest of the world only a week ago.

These developments, however, are merely the symptoms of the real problem: Erdogan’s AKP is slowly but surely becoming more intrusive and controlling over the lives of Turkish citizens. Erdogan personally has taken the charge; he has openly commented on various issues such as abortion (which he tied to his “strong advice” to people for having at least three children) and even architecture, openly vilified atheists, categorized people who consumed alcohol on a “regular” basis, defined as drinking once a week, as alcoholics (but suggested that those who voted for AKP were not so), defended “gas,” publicly disparaged journalists, prompted extensive educational reforms despite mass protests (incorporating increasing doses of religious education into the curriculum), and so on. Erdogan has also been pursuing a largely unpopular foreign policy over Syria, branding his critiques as Esad-lovers and admirers of the Baath Party.

In the eyes of his critics, Erdogan’s position has come to be defined in terms of four interrelated components. First, Erdogan’s discourses and policies about “change,” in one way or another, tend to have references to religion in some shape or form, if never defined solely in religious terms. The more secular segments of the society find the relevant discourses and legal as well as institutional reforms a little too discomforting.

Second, to make things worse, Erdogan’s discursive style has grown ever more confrontational and ever more controlling. Not only does the content of the messages he delivers — which are now associated with his all-too-frequent public speeches – appear threatening to those who do not share Erdogan’s visions over how social life should be organized and managed, the way he delivers them are also devoid of any compassion for the very people who may feel under attack.

Third, Erdogan’s charisma is built on an understanding that categorically rejects the practice of backing down under pressure. He may, and does, change his mind or rhetoric over a subject, but would not do so when his critics demand it.

Fourth, Erdogan is not a fan of criticism. If you are to criticize him, you have to buckle up for some serious reprimand. This prospect is increasingly scarier in a political environment where the press can no longer easily engage Erdogan on critical terms — as recent events now decisively displayed to the rest of the world — even if such engagement merely entails broadcasting the public protests that take place in the center of Turkey’s biggest city (as well as its capital and many other cities).

When combined, these four characteristics amplify the fear and anger among Erdogan’s discontents. Put simply, that Erdogan’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present image is being projected into the lives of many Turkish citizens make some feel not only threatened by AKP’s incursions, but also increasingly voiceless. And AKP has not been helping those who are concerned with their freedom of choice and voice.

AKP’s dismissive attitude toward its critics has reached new heights during May, revealing itself through two developments. First, AKP did not allow May Day to be celebrated in Taksim Square by citing safety hazards emanating from a major construction. Those who wanted to celebrate May Day in Taksim Square failed to make it through police barricades and tear gas. A seventeen-year-old high school student whose skull was cracked by a tear gas capsule was instantly branded as a “marginal” and neither the governor nor the government accepted responsibility for the incident. Only four days later, the Square hosted tens of thousands of football fans, who celebrated their championship without any interference from the police. Despite that the celebrations were quite lively and took place at night, no one was hurt due to the safety hazards cited for May Day.

The second development that strained the patience of AKP’s opponents came on May 11th: a series of car explosions in the border town of Reyhanli claimed the lives of more than 50 people. For most critiques, Reyhanli was the price that the country was paying for AKP’s ambitious and contentious foreign policy over the Syrian crisis. AKP’s response to its critiques proved to be less than satisfactory, reflecting the dismissive and disparaging tone that has now become its trademark. In this context, while it is surprising that Gezi Parki, and not these two developments, has triggered a public outrage, it is not surprising that the anger at AKP is finally revealing itself in the streets. Turkey has been boiling.

The question is, then, how come you heard so little about all these problems simmering in Turkey until now? There are three answers.

First, Erdogan exercised restraint in rhetoric and policy until the June 2011 elections, where he received one in every two votes. Armed with the electoral support of the “fifty per cent,” and successfully having pacified the long shadow of the armed forces in politics, AKP feels that it does not need to answer to anyone but its own voters. You criticize the reforms Erdogan introduces and he will point towards the ballot, reminding that in a democracy that is where you should speak out.

Second, the world has not been listening. For lack of better words, the image of a rising and prosperous Turkey literally made AKP’s critics look like jealous paranoids.

Third, the reforms and changes that Erdogan introduces do in fact find support from conservative segments of the population. The so-called fifty per cent may not stand behind every word that Erdogan utters or every reform he initiates, but they also do not stand against them. Erdogan is also an excellent student of his base, always picking his rhetorical and political battles after making sure that the wind from his fifty per cent is blowing behind him.

The Prime Minister’s rhetoric and policy proved to be invincible for a very long time. Opposition parties challenged him to no avail and many social and political groups took their chances with mass protests numerous times. All failed to ignite the kind of popular response that Gezi Parki protestors invoked. Something tipped people off with Gezi Parki. It was not environmentalist concerns, for such sensitivities remain relatively tertiary in everyday discourse. It was AKP’s dismissal of others’ views on the subject as well as its eagerness to use a method that had proven to be very efficient and effective up to that point (“gas”) on such a small group that proved to be the last straw that broke camel’s back. Make no mistake. Turkish politics will never be the same after Gezi Parki protests. Until May 28th, AKP was convinced that it had established itself as an invincible force of nature in Turkish politics. After May 28th, AKP’s opponents will always think of similar protests if they feel their voices are being shut off by AKP. There is a new game in town now.

Given all these, then, are we looking at a “Turkish Spring?” Asking this question, again, is asking the wrong question. Even the analogy itself is misleading for three reasons. First, Turkey’s democracy may have its flaws, but it still remains a democracy; comparing Erdogan’s Turkey circa June 2013 and Mubarek’s Egypt would be a mistake. Second, Erdogan remains a popular leader. Even Erdogan’s most ardent critic concedes that if there is an election tomorrow, AKP can still claim at least 45 per cent of the votes, most likely even more. Third, the protestors do not share or project a vision for revolution. While political organizations with revolutionary agendas have flocked to Taksim in order to take part in the protests, their vision remains necessarily marginal and does not travel to the majority of the demonstrators, most of whom are going to great lengths to prevent the demonstrations from turning into a call for regime change. So far, at least for most demonstrators, what is happening remains an exercise in letting the government know and understand that they are done with being told how to live, being called names and being reprimanded. They do not even like being called protestors; there is a conscious attempt to brand all of the demonstrations as “resistance.” For most, this is all about pushing back against AKP’s incursions and telling AKP that they still have a voice.

Put bluntly, you may think this is the Turkish Spring. You would be wrong. Unless the government chooses wisely, however, we may be looking at the beginning of a long and harsh Turkish Winter. It is true that Gezi Parki has unleashed a kinetic energy that has so far failed to spread across the broader population. But this energy will also be difficult, if not impossible, for AKP to contain.

Three possibilities await Turkey’s political future, and which one will materialize depends on Erdogan’s next move. First, if Erdogan chooses to reconcile with the demonstrators and come to terms with what has made him a magnet of anger and fear among some segments of the society, Turkish democracy will survive this episode and emerge stronger than ever.

If Erdogan’s AKP refuses to come to terms with itself, it is very likely that the image of a rising Turkey will be replaced by what will come to be known as the Turkish Winter, marked by either authoritarianism or civil strife (or both). What I refer to as political winter involves two scenarios. In the first scenario, AKP tightens its grip on the lives of its opponents in order to contain the demonstrations and prevent further ones. The streets may witness further protests from angrier and more radicalized protestors, which will then trigger further and harsher reactions from the government, fueling a cycle where AKP can no longer sustain its rule short of initiating explicitly authoritarian measures. AKP has so far refrained from such measures, but if the situation deteriorates, its hand may be forced.

An even worse scenario is one where neither the demonstrators nor AKP can control the popular energies. If this scenario materializes, all bets are off. The second half of 1970s is a cold reminder of how bloody things can get in Turkey once the society is polarized over “where Turkey should go.” Back then, it was left-wing versus right-wing clashes that pushed the entire country into the arms of a low-intensity civil war. If such polarization rears its ugly head again, it will include religion as part of the clash, and the image of a rising Turkey will be replaced by something considerably darker for the foreseeable future.

The ball is now in Erdogan’s court. With the right move, Turkish democracy will shed yet another one of its old habits — in this case, the tendency of powerful political parties to drift into populism-fuelled authoritarianism. With the wrong move, the hazy days of May and June may pave the way for a long and harsh Turkish Winter. Erdogan may choose to step on the brakes, which will require him to revise his discourse and policies but will also allow him to keep the image of a rising and democratic Turkey alive and kicking. The real challenge for him is to resist the temptation of playing down and repressing the symptoms that are now revealing themselves all over Turkey through the same mindset that has caused the problem in the first place.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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