On 12 June 2011, during his victory speech after having won his third election in a row, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan addressed cheering and hopeful crowds across the country, pledging that “…the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government will be the government of all 74 million Turks, not just those who voted for the AKP. We will embrace everyone. Nobody should doubt that we will protect the lifestyles, beliefs and values of not just those who voted for us, but also those who did not. Today, the victor of the elections is Turkey, democracy, the national will, and the entire nation.”1 His message was clear: he would be the prime minister of all of Turkey, and not just the 50 percent who had voted for him.
Two years later, large segments of the other 50 percent who did not vote for Erdoğan are enraged with what they say is an increasingly authoritarian prime minister who does not hear them. In an effort to make themselves heard, and frustrated with the lack of a functional opposition that represents them, at least two and a half million people have engaged in peaceful demonstrations in 67 of Turkey’s 81 cities within the last two months.2 Their frustration is fuelled by concern that their individual liberties are eroding, and concern that freedoms of speech, media, and assembly, minority rights and the rule of law are breaking down at an alarming rate, all while Turkey becomes less secular as Erdoğan pushes an Islamist agenda that risks taking Turkey down an irreversible path.
Erdoğan’s reaction to the protests, his reliance on excessive use of force against demonstrators and subsequent developments have vindicated the people’s concerns: as of late July 2013 police crackdowns on the demonstrations have left 5 people dead, 11 people blinded by tear gas canisters and 8000 with injuries, while unknown numbers of people have been detained.3 Those detained include doctors and lawyers who helped the injured and peaceful demonstrators whose only “crime” was to use twitter to exchange information regarding the protests. These are indeed alarming signs that demonstrate the declining status of democracy and rule of law in Turkey.
While the international media have since turned their attention elsewhere, protests still continue in certain parts of the country, and many are calling this just the beginning of a new movement.4 For now, it is unclear whether this movement can turn into a political one that can eventually challenge the government, because the people on the streets are not a homogenous group with a leader, party, common agenda or ideology; they are simply united by frustration over their eroding freedoms.
The protests in Turkey have been likened to the Arab Spring, Iran’s Green Revolution, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Chicago protests of 1968, and many others. Such analogies risk missing important nuances. In addition, the usual secularism versus Islamist dichotomy is not sufficient to explain the protests, because they have to do, first and foremost, with the quality of democracy in Turkey. This essay will aim to provide insight into the events by providing voices from within the country, including from journalists, human rights activists, demonstrators and politicians.
It is important to accurately assess the protests, because they will have implications for Turkish democracy, and, consequently for Arab countries that were looking at Turkey’s democracy as a source of inspiration, as well as for Western countries that saw it as an example of moderate Islam. They will impact Turkey’s foreign policy and its status as a candidate for the European Union (EU) and a neighbor of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The EU has already suspended talks with Turkey until at least October, and Erdoğan’s international standing as a popular leader has been shaken.
The protests were sparked at the end of May following a police raid on a peaceful sit-in by about 500 environmentalists against the planned demolition of Gezi Park in central Istanbul, adjacent to the central Taksim Square, to build a shopping mall that would be housed inside Ottoman-era-style army barracks. Police used excessive force such as pepper spray, tear gas, and water cannons to break up the demonstrators. This appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back: tens of thousands of protesters all over Turkey joined together in peaceful demonstrations. According to the results of a poll conducted in the early stages of the protests, the first reason for the protesters’ frustration was the prime minister’s authoritarian attitude (92.4%), followed by police force (91.3%), the violation of democratic rights (91.1%), and by the silence of the Turkish media (84.2%).5
Erdoğan’s response to the protests was interpreted as proof that not only had he fallen out of touch with the other half of the country, but he also was no longer acting as their prime minister. He adopted a rhetoric that was described as “divisive, harsh, uncompromising and stubborn,”6 calling the demonstrators hoodlums, street thugs, drunks, marginal groups, radical elements and terrorists opposing Turkey’s rise. A few examples of such rhetoric can be found in his words during a 15 June pro-government rally: “None of these people are concerned with trees, or the environment. They’re concerned with a growing Turkey. Their issue is to stop a rising Turkey… You look at the posters they put up, they were [those of] terrorists, illegal organizations, thugs who insulted the Prime Minister…”7 In another televised speech, he said, “They say this Prime Minister is causing tension, that the prime minister is too tough. Were we supposed to get down on our knees in front of them and beg them to bring down the thugs [from the Atatürk Cultural Center]? If you call this tough, then excuse me, this Tayyip Erdoğan won’t change.”8
His staff and pro-government media have reverted to conspiracy theories about who instigated the protests, ranging from Lufthansa, the CIA, and CNN to the American Enterprise Institute, an interest-rate lobby, the Jews, and even, telekinesis, a dark force that aimed to target Erdoğan due to jealousy with his success.9 Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol writes,
Erdoğan… found the real culprit behind the anger in streets: ‘foreign powers’ and their collaborators such as ‘the interest (loan) lobby.’ The more extensively the foreign media, such as CNN International and The Economist, covered the protests and criticized the government’s heavy-handed response, the more Erdoğan and his followers became convinced about an ill-intended ‘foreign hand’ behind the masses.10
Since 2002, when the Islamist-rooted AKP came to power, there has been a deep-seated suspicion among secular Turks that Erdoğan had an Islamist agenda that he would eventually push once he consolidated enough power. During his early years many gave him the benefit of the doubt, because he adopted a conciliatory tone, pushed through democratic reforms and took steps to bring Turkey up to European standards of democracy and living. Erdoğan’s response to the 2013 protests was seen as the ultimate moment when Erdoğan showed his true colors.11
Erdoğan as the Main Problem
Above all, the protests are an outburst of anger towards Erdoğan’s attitude and style of governance. Many claim that his understanding of democracy is more like majority rule than a pluralistic rule.12 As journalist Mine Kırıkkanat writes in the mass daily, staunchly secular Cumhuriyet, “Prime Minister Erdoğan did not understand that people in this country…where he rules with such an authoritarian style, were sick of his stubbornness; and that they were saying ‘enough’ to the increasing way he silenced them and interfered in every aspect of their lives from what they ate and drank, to how many kids they should have, to what they should think.”13
One example of this can be seen in the government’s recent decision to introduce legislation to restrict the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, a piece of legislation hurriedly passed in the early hours of 24 May (a week before the protests erupted), without any public debate or consultation.14 Other issues that he has floated include a ban on abortions and C-sections, while he has reminded women at every opportunity that they should have at least three children. Aside from general frustration at his stance on such social issues, there is also concern regarding the absence of any public debate on many massive infrastructure projects planned for Istanbul. These include a new mega-airport and a third bridge across the Bosporus.
A stark case, which a segment of society interprets as his disregard for them and minority rights, is his insistence on naming the new bridge after an Ottoman sultan, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1470-1520 and who is known to have massacred tens of thousands of Turkey’s Alevi minority. Alevis, which make up about 15 percent of the population, are offended by this insistence. Such moves are shown as proof that Erdoğan is not the inclusive, all-embracing leader that he promised to be. Human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz writes, “The fact that the government decided to name the bridge after Sultan Selim serves to confirm the fact that they attach no importance whatsoever to the emotions and perceptions of the Alevis. And unfortunately, the sense held by the Alevis that they are becoming more and more distant from the rest of the Turkish population is only deepening.”15
The Excessive Use of Force
The authoritarian style can also be seen in the excessive use of force that the riot police used. Moreover, Erdoğan supported the police against national and international criticism of their brutality. On 15 June, in a pro-government rally, he said, “Police can use water, pepper spray, it is written in the EU documents, [this his how it is] in the U.S., in Russia and China, and in some countries, they even fire bullets. My police was patient. He was beaten. Over 600 of my police were hurt… This is unacceptable.”16
Writing for the daily Cumhuriyet, Kırıkkanat recounts her first-hand experience from within the crowds:
I’ve been in the middle of the events since the start. I’ve seen the police attack people with the violence and vengeance that you might expect from an enemy’s army. Those who banned smoking have been making the people inhale pepper spray to the public since Friday morning. This is what the Nazis did to the Jews. We should be glad that the death penalty was abolished before the AKP came to power. Otherwise, this police, who is spraying whatever they can find, would spray sarin gas on the people once they were out of pepper spray.17
The media’s stance has also vindicated the protesters’ concerns regarding the erosion of an independent media, an important pillar of any healthy democracy. The Turkish media did not cover the initial stages of the demonstrations, out of reluctance to act against Erdoğan. While the international media were showing breaking news of the protests, the Turkish channels aired documentaries or cooking shows, leading to huge disappointment for protesters. The demonstrators had to rely on social media to exchange information about what was happening where.
As journalist Yavuz Baydar writes in his column in Al Monitor,
While the anger that ignited at Gezi Park was spreading street by street, almost all those channels were airing documentaries or talk shows that had no relevance to the extraordinary story breaking out. Their editorial choice was a necessity. Reporting the developments could have angered the Prime Minister. To practice good reporting would be out of the question for media bosses and managers who fear his anger could affect their business connections and their expectations of economic benefits from the government…. On the night of May 31, people saw a media that had hit rock bottom under the ruthless censorship of bosses who have long been the slaves of political-bureaucratic power...18
In fact, in their 2013 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders notes that Turkey is “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” where approximately 70 journalists are in prison. Turkey ranks 154th for open press out of 179 countries - worse than Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia.19 Amnesty International and the International Federation of Journalists have also pointed out that many renowned journalists have been forced out of their jobs by the personal intervention of the prime minister. Given this background, the media were reluctant to report the breaking story. Bekir Coskun laments this situation in his column in Cumhuriyet:
Media: You are just as responsible for what’s happened as the government… You closed your ears… You closed your eyes… You were silent… You hid what was happening to Turkey from those who were watching you… Just look at yourself… In the square, on the street, on the roads, all hell is breaking loose… Fire, sirens and smoke have filled up the cities… People have turned on Al Jazeera asking ‘What is happening?’…. While the entire world was showing what’s happening in Turkey as breaking news, you showed cooking shows…20
Not a Turkish Spring
Despite analogies with the Arab Spring revolutions, the events in Turkey cannot be compared to them. The most important distinction is that Erdoğan came to power in a free election and if another election were to be held tomorrow, he would still get more votes than the other party leaders. This is the dilemma facing Turkey: an authoritarian leader who came to power democratically, and who still has the support of almost half of the nation, disregarding those who did not vote for him. In fact, many have used the term “illiberal democracy” to describe Turkey nowadays, due to the fact that Erdoğan has become more authoritarian through the ballot box.21 Another important distinction is that, in contrast to the Arab Spring protests, where people were calling for rights they did not have, the Turkish protestors are demonstrating against an encroachment on rights that they already do have.
One question that is asked about the protests in Turkey is whether the Army has a role to play or whether a military coup is possible. It should be noted that with all the changes that the government has made in scrapping the military’s role in politics, and with the current reality that some 450 active and retired officers (including three former army commanders, as well as senior generals and admirals) are either in jail or being tried for staging coups and toppling or attempting to topple governments, it is highly unlikely that the military will play any role in this movement.22 (See Special Essay, “Understanding Turkey’s Historic Coup Trial” in the October 2012 issue of OE Watch.)
Implications for Turkey’s Political Future
Analysts have pondered whether the movement on the streets can turn into a viable opposition that can challenge the government, but many are skeptical. Dani Rodrik, a Turkish professor at Harvard, expresses pessimism, claiming, “Mere opposition to Erdoğan does not make for a lasting political organization. And no natural leaders have emerged so far from the protests. So I am sort of pessimistic that the protest will lead to a new kind of politics or greater democracy in Turkey.”23
Professor Kemal Kirișçi, director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institute writes, “It is difficult to see how, under these circumstances, Turkey would be able to finally resolve the thorny Kurdish issue, continue to keep the economy growing, maintain Turkey as a major attraction for tourism, raise new generations of youth capable of keeping up with the challenges of globalization and manage the Syrian crisis in a manner that does not engulf Turkey.”24 Lehigh University Professor of International Relations and Turkey expert Henri Barkey warns, “If managed poorly, the ripple effects of the crisis could have disastrous effects for both the economic stability of the country and the peace initiative designed to bring an end to the decades-long Kurdish insurgency.”25
Implications for Turkey’s Foreign Policy
According to Turkish analysts, the demonstrations will make Erdoğan adopt a more nationalist approach. There are already signs of this, in how he has pointed to Western and Jewish forces as being behind them. Analysts estimate that this would translate into a slowdown in newly re-established relations with Israel, a more tempered Syria policy, and possibly increased anti-American rhetoric. Given that the EU has postponed the opening of any new chapters for Turkish membership until October, they claim that the EU might cease to be an effective force and Turkish ambitions to join it might fizzle out.
According to many experts, hype about Turkey as a moderate Islamic democratic country will likely subside. They argue that the protests have revealed the declining state of democracy in Turkey. The Arab world is no longer likely to look to Turkey as a model, if they ever did. As Turkish journalist Kadri Gürsel testified to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats on 26 June 2013, “The social explosion in Turkey and government pressures that followed simply washed out the paradigm of the ‘Turkey model’ based on the rule of the Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP. This was advocated as a model for the Middle East and was accompanied by the term ‘Muslim democracy,’ even though it was not applicable.”26
The 2013 protests in Turkey have exposed the declining status of its democracy. They will have important implications for Turkey’s political future, its foreign policy, and, consequently, the entire region. Currently, Turkey is scheduled to have general elections in 2015, and presidential elections in 2014. Erdoğan has expressed his wish to become the next president of Turkey in 2014, and continue ruling the country as president. He also wants to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, and in the process modify many of the checks and balances that are essential in a democracy. This is seen as further proof of his authoritarian ambitions. The outcome of these elections will define the fate of Turkey’s illiberal democracy for decades to come.