Taksim - A.Geybullayeva

Taksim - A.Geybullayeva

During more than a decade in power, prime minister Recep Tayyp Erdoğan has implemented important reforms, yet he hasn't done enough to tackle the deepest flaw rooted in Turkey’s republican legacy: the authoritarian reflex built into the system of governance. "Turkey after Taksim", in Dimitar Bechev's comment for OBC

03/07/2013 -  Dimitar Bechev*

Turkey’s democratisation has never followed a linear pattern. Received wisdom in the country holds that consolidation of democratic norms and institutions goes two steps forward, one back. Even in 2006, at the peak of Turkey’s drive towards the EU with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushing for more freedom and minority rights, parliament enacted restrictive anti-terrorism legislation to step up the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As a result, Turkey earned unenviable reputation amongst international watchdogs dealing with the freedom speech, having jailed in excess of 70 journalists – more than either China or Iran. But following the heavy handed crackdown of protests in Istanbul it seems that the country’s advance to democracy is in “one step forward, two back” mode.

Along with the polarising talk of Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the gas, the water cannons and police batons unleashed over the past weekend show that the lofty ideal of reaching the middle ground via democratic and participatory deliberation is as far removed from Turkish political reality as ever.

The victory of the “tough line”

It did not need to be that way. After police evicted environmentalists from the now world-famous Gezi Park two weeks ago, moderate voices within the AKP called for dialogue and compromise. The president Abdullah Gül, a politician who is by and large trusted by liberal intelligentsia, famously said that democracy meant much more than elections. Reportedly, Gül’s intervention led the police to retreat from Taksim on 2 June too, clearing the scene for the tent encampment and a veritable summer of freedom and love.

The contrast with Erdoğan could not be more profound. Turkey’s strongman repeatedly berated the protestors as “looters”, “marginals”, agents of foreign powers and murky speculators seeking to undermine the Turkish lira. Rallying hundreds of thousands AKP supporters in Ankara and Istanbul to show strength, he told stories of louts gobbling beer and engaging in sexual acts in mosques who would shamelessly harass headscarved women. The tough line has clearly won. Even Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who initially apologised to those sustaining injuries, has more recently not excluded that the army units to stem the protests.

Four TV channels were imposed fines for covering the events, there are hundreds of detained including lawyers and doctors. There is a strong sense of a back to the future. The street battles of the past few days evoked memories of the near civil war between left and right of the 1970s and the anti-minority pogroms sweeping through town in September 1955.

Erdoğan and the new Turkey

Erdoğan’s claim is he is a democratically elected leader, backed by the masses while the protestors are outliers tainting the image of Turkey. And after all, weren’t protestors given a fair chance. Benevolently, the premier had agreed to comply with the court injunction barring the redevelopment of Taksim and the Gezi Park. In a further concession, Erdoğan that even if judges endorse a pending government appeal a referendum would be held to decide on the redevelopment plan. By refusing to evacuate the park and abide by the terms of the agreement the activists exhausted the notoriously short-fused leader’s patience. They left him with no options but to restore public order and clamp down on lefty radicals hurling Molotov cocktails. Enough was enough.

But Erdoğan’s problem is the failure to understand the new Turkey he himself brought about. His black-and-white worldview pigeonholes the protest as the making of the old secularist opposition. Not necessarily the case. The pollster Konda found out that only 41% of the Gezi occupants voted for the People’s Republican Party (CHP) in 2011, with the rest either not being of a voting age two years ago (17%) or supporting other groups (AKP voters accounted for 2%). Only 31% said that they will vote CHP again. With “freedom” and “rights” highlighted by most interviewees, it is patent that movement is for more responsive and accountable government, not a restoration of the ancien régime.

Another express survey conducted by Bilgi University found out that a mere 6% want a military intervention. Contrast that with the so-called republican rallies of 2007 venting off their rage at the prospect of a headscarved woman becoming Turkey’s first lady in the person of Hayrünnisa Gül, while the CHP was openly calling for a army putsch. This time around, it is Erdoğan’s authoritarian bent rather than an Islamist takeover, real or perceived, is driving people to the streets. The Bilgi survey furthermore registered that about 9% of the protestors had actually voted AKP. Protest spread to party strongholds in the Anatolian heartland as Kayseri and Konya.

Even more tellingly, the media outlets close to Fethullah Gülen, a cleric with large following in both Turkey and abroad, gave cautious support to the protests, having been critical of the government for some time. Today’s Zaman, the English-language publication, has given platform to a large number of disgruntled liberals who used to cheer for Erdoğan in the combat against military tutelage and the Kemalist deep state. Indeed Taksim has gathered very dissimilar, even antagonistic groups: secularists who never accepted the AKP and liberals, Turkish nationalists and Kurdish activists, hardcore mostly apolitical youth swept into action by the social networks, urban professionals and leftist trade unionists. Even the fans of the three major Istanbul football teams, usually mortal rivals, have joined forces at the forefront of the rallies. The glue keeping it all together is Erdoğan’s hunger for power and disregard for dissident views.

Authoritarianism, the media and civil society

Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a coulourful MP from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), wryly observed that the only Kemalist in Taksim was the AKP government. He has a point. Erdoğan’s reaction to the challenge to his authority was to draw a sharp distinction between “us” (the conservative majority, thankful for the decade of unseen prosperity and social stability) vs. “them” (radicalised groups calling into question a democratically legitimate government and serving Turkey’s enemies). His paternalistic tone, putting state interest at the forefront and stressing the significance of strong executive power highlights a deep-seated problem afflicting Turkey’s imperfect democracy.

While AKP civilianised Turkish politics transferring power into the hands of elected politicians and went a long way in expanding the rights of Kurds and other minority communities, it has not done enough to tackle the deepest flaw rooted in Turkey’s republican legacy: the authoritarian reflex built into the system of governance. What we are facing is the outcome of a strong, charismatic, and by all counts successful leader being in power for more than a decade with few institutional checks to contain his ambitions. And a state machine subservient to his fiat – as illustrated by the actions taken by the police. Add to the mix the prospect of a switch from a parliamentary to a presidential regime, advocated by Erdoğan, and the prospect of an authoritarian turn becomes truly alarming.

Beyond Erdoğan’s abrasive talk, disregard for opposing views and resolve to ram through decisions against popular discontent, protests are driven by an institutional logic. Street pressure comes to fill in a gap left open by formal arrangements. Neither opposition parties (with the partial exception of the BDP which nonetheless serves a more narrow, ethnic agenda) nor the media are in position to provide a counterweight to the power centre resulting from the merger of AKP’s conservative ideology and the strength of the Turkish state. The CHP is split between social democrat reformers and the Kemalist old-timers in the grassroots, and it has failed to offer credible response to major developments such as the Kurdish peace process unveiled this spring.

With few notable exceptions, media has failed big time in covering protests. Even before concerns have been growing as prominent journalists such as Hasan Cemal or Amberin Zaman (who also covers Turkey for the Economist) were fired by the mainstream newspapers employing them. Civil society, or at least a significant segment thereof, turns out to be Turkey’s best bet. It is the only instrument available for reality check under the present circumstances. The vibrancy and robustness of Turkey’s civic fabric was amply proven by the protests: from the provision of teargas masks to the distribution of medicine and food by self-organised activists and networks. And this is not the first time such things happen: suffice to mention the solidarity action in the wake of the Marmara earthquake in 1999.

The (weak) role af the EU

Unconsolidated democracies on the edge of Europe have often benefited from having the EU as an external anchor guiding domestic change. That was the case of Turkey too, especially between 1999 when the country qualified for candidate status and 2005 when Brussels decided to open accession negotiations. Sadly, the Union has largely squandered the power it formerly wielded. The stalled membership talks, divisions amongst member states and the Eurocrisis have all contributed to Erdoğan’s hubris.

The prime minister is a foreign policy pragmatist, not an instinctive anti-Westerner as some of his critics paint him. He forged a common front with the US and NATO over Syria and built strong personal ties with President Obama. But he is certainly not eager to listen to EU’s moralising. Criticising Brussels’ duplicity and lambasting Islamophobia in Europe has become a staple in government’s speeches. A majority of Turks share the government’s viewpoint. For their part, protestors rely on their own strength, not foreign backing which only feeds into Erdoğan’s narrative of the events as a plot conceived outside Turkey.

While foreign media were welcomed at Taksim, not many were holding their breath over what statements will be aired by Catherine Ashton or Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle.

Turkey after Taksim

In Turkish, the words for pluralism (çoğulculuk) and majoritarianism (çoğunlukçuluk) sound quite similar. But they point at two alternative paths. The future trajectory of events would surely bear considerable impact on Turkey’s political evolution. A continuation of the crack-down, tightening the grip on media accompanied by mobilisation of the AKP base will have a polarising effect on society and will usher in months of tension and instability. Such a choice might well bolster Erdoğan in the short term but it will cost the country dearly. For political strife will not only make it more difficult to craft a new constitution but it could also spill over into the economy and threaten the government’s effort at finding a lasting solution for the Kurdish issue.

After the impressive bounceback of 2010 and 2011, growth in Turkish economy, dependent on the influx of funds from outside, slowed to just 2.2% in 2012, partly as a result of recession in key EU countries. Political risk might well deter investors and take toll on growth figures projected at 3.5% in the current year. Escalating tensions in large cities will also divert attention away from the negotiations with PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan. AKP already failed once to deliver a peaceful solution to the decades-long problem concerning the cultural, linguistic and political rights of the Kurdish community numbering up to 14 million in Turkey. Erdoğan sees the current talks as the centerpiece of his own political legacy. If the protests derail the talks as well as the constitution-drafting process he will suffer a heavy blow, having shouldered major risk by approaching Öcalan.

A positive scenario would involve a toning down of rhetoric by the government, possibly Erdoğan leaving more space to Gül. Local authorities should also revisit the plan to redevelop the Gezi Park – taking into account the views of Istanbul citizens. That should happen with as little interference from the top as possible. At the end of the day, Erdoğan is not a mayor of Istanbul anymore as he was in 1994-8 but a prime minister. Ultimately, constitution makers should give up the idea of a transition to a presidential model too. The protests are a clear indication that such a development will be met with staunch opposition.

Turkey is facing a period marked by a series of votes: municipal elections in March 2014, then presidential elections - possibly preceded by a constitutional referendum, and then general polls in the summer of 2015. These will all be moments of tension and polarisation. Even if protests abate they will surely reemerge with renewed vigour. What happens in the months to come will leave a durable mark on the politics and society of Turkey.

Can Europe still make a difference?

Can Europe still make a difference? High-level opprobrium might be justified but certainly not lead to much. It could actually be counterproductive given the growing use of conspiracy theories and scapegoating foreigners by the AKP government. EU has furthermore a credibility problem. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that membership negotiations should be delayed is read in Turkey as a pre-election ploy. Still, there should be concerted behind the scenes effort to steer Erdoğan into a more conciliatory mode.

Governments supportive of the Turkey’s EU bid and who are seen as friends in Ankara have a particular duty. Europeans should team up with the Americans, though the Obama administration has more often than not reluctant to put pressure on Turkey over its democratic record. Following in the footsteps of a well-measured and principled declaration by the European Parliament European civil society should also continue to show solidarity with the protestors.

Language portraying Islamisation as a threat is to be avoided. Turkey has outgrown the culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s. It is true that AKP needs to accept secular lifestyle, refrain from encroaching on the choices that go along with it (e.g. public consumption of alcohol). Yet the problem is authoritarian backsliding, not conservative ideology per se. Cultural references only entrench the “moral majority” narrative expounded by Erdoğan and deepen polarisation within Turkey. 


*Dimitar Bechev is a Senior Policy Fellow and Head of the European Council on Foreign Relations' (ECFR) office in Sofia. Dimitar has published widely on the EU's enlargement and neighbourhood policies as well as the politics and modern history of the Balkans. He is the author of The Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Macedonia (2009), Mediterranean Frontiers: Borders, Conflict and Memory in a Transnational World (2010, co-edited with ECFR Council Member Kalypso Nicolaidis) and Constructing South East Europe: the Politics of Balkan Regional Cooperation (2011).


This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page: Tell Europe to Europe

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