The widespread protests in Turkey are a demonstration of what happens when a leader and party obsessed with power have systematically closed off alternative methods of dissent.
Yes, the protests were triggered by a decision about a park near Taksim Square; yes, those concerns about the park echo environmentalist concerns about a new bridge across the Bosphorus Strait. Yes, there is anger over a new regulation that some people fear is a de facto ban on alcohol. Yes, there is increasing worry — perhaps turning into panic — that an era of Turkish secularism is slipping away. Yes, there is great frustration at the perception that government lies to the public and keeps them in the dark about issues with consequences of life and death. Yes, there is a sense that a long economic boom is ending and the country’s standard of living is dropping.
But in the end, what’s driving the protests is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, AKP, have run the show in Turkey for a decade, making a lot of enemies along the way and generally squashing those enemies. Erdogan and his allies came to expect that they would get their way in matters large and small, and finally a critical mass of Turks are declaring “ENOUGH!” Of course, Erdogan retains one key advantage that may help him outlast the popular discontent: the lack of unity behind any existing alternative.
First, a quick review of how we got here: In 2001 and 2002, a severe recession hit Turkey, and the voting public turned against the ruling coalition of secular parties. In November 2002, Erdogan and a new “moderate Islamist” party, the AKP, were elected; because of the quirks of the Turkish parliamentary system, they received one third of the popular vote yet received two thirds of the seats in parliament. (The opposition was split, and only one other party, the traditionally secularist Republican People’s party — Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP — topped the 10 percent threshold required to qualify for seats in parliament.)
AKP represented a coalition/alliance of three groups — hardcore Islamists, the traditionalist rural types who thought the secular elites in Istanbul and Ankara looked down on them (a phenomenon Americans will understand), and . . . free-market entrepreneurial types. Turkey’s religiously secular parties were anti-Communist but statist, supporting direct government control over large sectors of the economy (e.g. energy production).
The Bush administration didn’t really like AKP, but found that it could work with them most of the time: They still let the U.S. use Incirlik Air Base in Turkey for non-combat missions in Iraq (resupply, search, and rescue), they kept their troops out of the Kurdish region as long as they could until national security or internal politics demanded it, and so on. The Bush administration supported Turkey’s entry into the European Union, a goal many Turks seemed to believe would be the economic equivalent of winning the lottery.
The past decade revealed Erdogan and AKP to be rather flexible ideologically in the pursuit of power. Erdogan is as free-market as he needs to be to expand his power, and then as big-spending and as willing to regulate and control the private sector as his agenda requires. Many feared Erdogan would orient Turkey’s foreign policy away from the West and towards its Muslim neighbors, but his grand ambitions to be the key dealmaker between the West and the Muslim world have imploded. In his early terms, Erdogan made a serious effort to improve relations with Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, only to watch the Assad regime’s crackdown trigger a brutal civil war — and a horrific refugee and humanitarian disaster that has spilled over into Turkey. Now Erdogan denounces Assad more frequently and forcefully than President Obama does.
AKP’s approach to the Islamification of Turkish daily life has been gradual and wily. The party proposed criminalizing adultery, and then withdrew the proposal. They pushed for the legalization of women wearing the headscarf, but the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that a 2008 law allowing the headscarf in public universities violated the Turkish constitution’s secular principles. The parliament first increased taxes on alcohol and then restricted advertising it; there is now a question of how a vaguely worded law that restricts the sale of alcohol will be interpreted.
Turkey has vocal secularists who are deeply troubled by AKP’s moves; periodically these secular Turks organize large demonstrations. In 2006, the funeral of a judge slain by an Islamist turned into a massive, and more than a bit angry, rally against the current political leadership and Islamist elements in the country. Later that year, four-time Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit died, and when Erdogan showed up for the memorial service, he was booed soundly.
But the secularists and other critics of AKP haven’t coalesced behind an alternative. CHP and most of the other opposition parties have proven to be internally divided and unable to form coalitions. In national parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2011, AKP won an increasingly greater share of the the popular vote but fewer seats, though still a clear majority. They currently hold 327 of the 550 seats in the Turkish parliament.
Elections have been ineffective as an outlet for dissent, and the country’s news media no longer fill that role, either. As recently as Erdogan’s first term, the Turkish press was rambunctious, loud, combative, and full of diverse, dissenting viewpoints. But year by year, the Turkish government has cracked down on journalists who proved troublesome to the government, using many methods of intimidation and prosecution.
As noted in the U.S. State Department’s most recent Human Rights report on Turkey: “The arrest and prosecution of journalists, writers, and Kurdish intellectuals and political activists, coupled with condemnatory speeches by political leaders, had a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Since that report was issued, the situation has only gotten worse. An October 2012 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that Turkey now has “the disreputable distinction of being the world’s worst jailer of the press” — an analysis shared by Reporters Without Borders. . . .
Hundreds of military officers, as well as various scholars and journalists, have been arrested and charged through trials dogged by allegations of fabricated evidence used by the prosecution. Many now face prison terms of twenty years or more pending appeal. Moreover, given that many of these officials have worked closely with the United States and our NATO allies over the years, these trials are also a blow to NATO’s overall collective capability.
In this chilling atmosphere, the remaining Turkish press simply fell down on the job. Astoundingly, some Turkish media have either dramatically downplayed or ignored the ongoing protests:
As clouds of tear gas engulfed central Istanbul and anti-government demonstrators fought with police, billionaire Aydin Dogan’s news channel aired a documentary about penguins.
The scheduling made him and other media bosses targets of demonstrators who have turned the occupation of an Istanbul park into a challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a police crackdown began on May 31. They say the coverage, or lack of it, of the biggest nationwide protests in years reflects a media industry driven by the desire to stay on good terms with Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP. . . .
On June 3, after protests spread to Ankara and a weekend of clashes left parts of Turkey’s two biggest cities looking like war zones, Sabah newspaper led with a story about the prime minister’s anti-smoking campaign.
CNN Turk showed a documentary about penguins on June 2, while CNN International broadcasted live from Taksim Square; this led to Twitter jokes about what it would take to get the local television stations interested in the protests:
And as Istanbul-based American writer Claire Berlinski notes in a gripping account from that city, rumor fills the vacuum:
There is outrage about the bombing in Reyhanlı that left 52 Turks dead and which appears to have been attributable to a series of inexcusable police and intelligence blunders (but no one knows, and no one believes what the press writes); there is fear of war with Syria; there is concern about strange reports that al-Nusra, a Syrian militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, has been cooking up Sarin gas in Adana, five miles east of the United States’ Incirlik Air Base.
Turks have always had an intense interest in conspiracy theories, and the factionalism and petty corruption of their politics often justified a certain qualified paranoia. But now their government has proven to be a heavy-handed, brutal force of dystopian nightmares, and very little seems too farfetched to be possible.
This picture, showing a Turkish riot-police officer spraying tear gas on a woman in Istanbul’s Taksim Square last week, is turning into the Turkish equivalent of the famous images of the 1970 Kent State shootings, or the February 1968 Associated Press photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. A key argument of the government is that the protesters are malcontents, radicals, and troublemakers, but the woman in the red dress looks like the Turkish middle class personified.
Crisis Group, a blog featuring the Wall Street Journal’s longtime Turkey correspondent Hugh Pope, describes how this protest is different from earlier ones:
The bulk of the protestors thronging Istanbul’s central streets by day are middle-class, often spurred into action by social media networks. Many of them hold regular jobs, including bankers, lawyers, academics and other private-sector personnel. Women are notably numerous at the protests. Celebrities turn up to be photographed helping to clean up Taksim Square. Bands of high-school children skip classes day after day, defying their families, donning the black signature colour of the protests and sneaking to demonstrations with water bottles filled with anti-tear-gas vinegar from the kitchen back home.
Everything about Erdogan’s reign as prime minister suggests he doesn’t back down from a fight; he’s heavily invested in the narrative of himself as the noble leader, backed by God, who is bedeviled only by a radical minority whose sole agenda is troublemaking. But the seeds of a powerful coalition of opposition have been sown — including the business community, which had, until now, relished the unprecedented prosperity that the AKP reign had brought.
Benjamin Harvey, the Turkey bureau chief for Bloomberg, spotlighted how the Turkish stock market responded to the prime minister’s latest defiant speech on Thursday with a steep, ominous drop:
The era of Erdogan’s dominating his country’s politics with a cult of personality and a heavy hand appears to be nearing its end. But what will follow is still extremely unclear.
— Jim Geraghty, who writes NRO’s Campaign Spot, lived in Ankara, Turkey, from 2005 to 2007.