Tocqueville and Turkey

by Reihan Salam

When I saw that Pankaj Mishra of Bloomberg View had written a column riffing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, I had hoped he’d focus on Turkey under Erdogan, which this week saw an eruption of fierce street protests. At first, a handful of environmental activists had gathered in Taksim Square to protest the transformation of a small park into a new commercial development. The ferocity of the police response sparked anger among other opponents of Erdogan’s AK Party, many of whom are left-of-center secularists concerned about what they see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. And the so protests have grown larger, and they have spread to other major Turkish cities. Piotr Zalewski of Time sets the scene:

In a speech on Saturday, Erdogan struck a defiant tone. The Taksim redevelopment project would go ahead, he said, referring to the protesters occupying the square as “marginal groups.” “If you gather a hundred thousand people,” he said, addressing the opposition, “I will gather a million.” It was the kind of rhetoric designed to rouse the party faithful, not to appease the protesters. As such, it was symptomatic of precisely what brought people to the streets in the first place — the arrogance of power. Within hours of Erdogan’s speech, the crowds once again descended on Taksim.

For a government that enjoys the support of nearly half the population, plus a seeming monopoly on power, and which has presided over a decade of unprecedented growth — the economy has roared ahead at an average of 5% per year since Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took the reins in 2002 — the protests are far from a death knell. They are, however, a wake-up call. Erdogan, who cannot run for a third term as Prime Minister, is believed to be planning on being elected President in 2014, but not before using constitutional changes to endow the post with executive powers, as in the U.S. or France. The ongoing protests, more than anything that’s preceded them — including the efforts of a largely impotent political opposition — threaten to derail such plans for good.

So far, the protests have included mostly young leftists, environmentalists and secularists, all of them core government opponents, but very few religious conservatives. For Erdogan, the greatest danger is that conservative Muslims, who form the AKP’s base, will flinch at the images of police brutality and begin to join the protesters’ ranks. That may be one reason why the government has pulled police forces out of Taksim and clamped down on the media harder and more visibly than ever. Many press outlets are downplaying the protests. On Saturday, one of the country’s leading papers, owned the Prime Minister’s son-in-law, buried the story. Later that evening, as clashes between police and protesters continued around Istanbul and other cities, CNN Turk, a leading news network, aired a cooking show, plus documentaries about a 1970s novelist, dolphin training and penguins.

The Erdogan government has in the past been shrewd about containing and diffusing opposition. What is interesting now is that opposition to Erdogan is emerging within his own political movement, as Zalewski suggests. To return to Mishra’s column, the relevance of Tocqueville to Turkey is pretty clear:

Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar, is reportedly among the senior leaders obsessed with what he sees as the book’s cautionary message: that increasing prosperity and piecemeal political reform didn’t protect France’s pre-revolutionary regime from violent overthrow.

The parallels between Tocqueville’s France are Turkey are hardly exact. But it does seem as though Erdogan, an incredibly deft populist, now finds himself on the wrong side of a “revolution of rising expectations.”