Michael Auslin comments below on the protests that have engulfed Turkey today — which, specifically, began with a clash over the government’s attempt to demolish a park in Istanbul to make way for a shopping mall. Ironically, then, it could look like it was Erdogan and his AK party’s capitalist instincts that have set off this round of protests and opposition.
Erdogan’s party has successfully held power since 2002 on two planks: As Michael noted, a “mild Islamism” to earn the trust of much of rural Turkey and the urban poor, along with a strong commitment to economic development and neoliberalism that have mollified the traditionally secularist elite.
Yet appearances (there were also recent protests over the government’s plan to build another bridge across the Bosporus) can be deceiving, because the protests appear to represent broad dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s authoritarianism – both the Islamist expressions of it, such as the recent new restrictions on alcohol sales, and the secular ones, like demolishing parks to build a mall.
Turkish leaders have always had to balance the strongly Muslim instincts of the people with the secular ideals Ataturk set down for the country, which have been enforced by the courts and the often perfectly legal interventions of the military, and have been embraced by much of the urban public, especially businessmen and the youth. Erdogan has been quite successful at this balancing act: He’s kept the liberals and the Istanbul elite happy enough with laissez-faire policies and quite strong economic growth, and pushed some Islamist measures to satisfy the rest of the country and religious urbanites (in addition to more symbolic gestures, such as his wife’s wearing a headscarf at times). But it’s a delicate balance, and Erdogan has tended to implement with an iron fist the measures necessary to keep it. It’s not clear which side of the AKP equation is really deteriorating, for now — the complaints seem to be coming from both sides.