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.