The protests in Turkey have grown serious, going on for days and leading to thousands of injured. So far, the government has adjusted its initial, excessive, response, and seems to be looking for a face-saving way to defuse the situation.
What caused the protests? I was in Turkey last month, visiting the seaside town of Kusadasi and the business and financial center of Istanbul. That follows my trip to Antalya and Ankara last winter.
What I found everywhere was growing resentment at the increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Erdogan. People had originally voted for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (the AKP) because he seemed to have an outstanding technical team and he promised true democracy after years of military-led or guided governance. Erdogan’s team included his erudite foreign minister Ahmet Davatoglu, and current president Abdullah Gul.
But in the last couple of years, Erdogan has started to tower above his team. Buoyed by his election successes, he seemed to think he had the right to legislate for the country. Whatever whim entered into his head became the basis for new laws or new development projects, and those who objected were increasingly subject to harassment or arrest, including journalists and academics who incurred his enmity. Erdogan has pushed for a new airport, a bridge over the Bosphorus, a new canal to link the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara, all in the name of economic growth; many think these are going too far and will spoil the beauty and attractiveness of the Istanbul region. More annoying than the measures themselves, however, is the manner in which they were adopted — announced or rammed through without any discussion, environmental impact reports, or public hearings of any kind.
Religious measures have similarly been implemented according to whim. AKP is an Islamist party, but one that supposedly also respects the desires and lifestyles of more secular Turks, and one that wants to be in line with the European Union rules regarding religious freedom. Yet in the last few months, measures have been adopted to restrict public sales of alcohol, prescribe make-up for flight attendants on Turkish Airlines (!?), limit celebrations of secular holidays (including Turkey’s national independence day, created by Turkey’s founder and chief advocate of secularism, Mustafa Kemal), and even to add religion courses to the curriculum of public schools, again with minimal public debate. Erdogan has come out in favor of women having more children, and spending more time at home. The major legal investigations and trials against the alleged conspirators against the Turkish government, both military and civilian, have sometimes exceeded the bounds of proper legal procedure and seem to have included forged evidence in the government’s zeal to dispense with its foes.
The AKP has many positive accomplishments to its credit, including pursuit of EU membership (though that has been almost halted by opposition from Greece, Cyprus, and France), reconciliation with the large Kurdish minority that was harshly oppressed under the nationalist secular ruling parties and military rule, and most important, sustained economic growth that has lifted family fortunes throughout the country.
Yet in the last few months, I sensed a feeling that despite all of its good works, Turks were starting to fear that their government was out of control. Erdogan looked to be getting intoxicated with power, wanting to shape Turkey according to his private ideals, turning on perceived enemies, and wanting to weaken democratic checks and balances on his executive power. I heard rumors that Erdogan plans to change the constitution to make wearing headscarves mandatory for women (right now, headscarves are not only not mandatory, they are strictly prohibited for state employees and in state institutions); that he plans to change the weekly off-day from Sunday to Friday (common practice in the Islamic world); even that he plans to make work-days start at 6 am, right after the first Islamic morning prayers. Some of these anxieties seem extreme, but Turkey’s women — who were given the right to vote in 1934, before women in France or Switzerland, and who are increasingly well-educated and professionally employed — are deeply worried that Erdogan will turn the AKP in a more conservative and fundamentalist direction and undo their progress.
So the protests in Turkey began with protests about conversion of an Istanbul part into a shopping development; but they were much more than that. They were a protest against the government’s practice of making arbitrary decisions without public debate or input, and touched off a nationwide protest movement demanding that their government listen to the people in true democratic fashion. People are protesting because many of them feel betrayed or worried by the AKP and in particular by Erdogan — they want to remind him that Turkey has become a democracy, and that democracy is what they want him to respect.
So where will the protests lead? I think they will continue until Erdogan makes a public statement showing some humility and respect for popular opinion. The protests will end if Erdogan makes a public promise to be more open in his decisions, and to subject development actions and changes in state laws to public debate and environmental study before proceeding.
But will Erdogan make that step? He seems to have become obsessed with his own vision of Turkish society, and paranoid about seeing enemies all around him. If he reacts with paranoia, or condemnation or dismissal of the protestors, the protests will likely grow, and may morph into demands that Erdogan resign. That would provoke a major confrontation in which the whole AKP might feel threatened, and could lead to greater violence.
But I hope that Erdogan’s team — which seems more reasonable and has already tried to calm the situation — will be strengthened vs. their leader, and will be able to persuade him that a few conciliatory words and some changes in his behavior are necessary to retain all that the AKP has gained.
But the situation is definitely risky. Economic growth has slowed, and violence from Syria is spilling over the border. Faced with these dual threats, for many Turks the idea that their government is out of control and focused on pursuing one man’s personal whims of social engineering is intolerable. So the threat is there of protests continuing to build until confidence in the public accountability and commitment to democracy of the AKP and its leadership is restored.
Tragic. Leaders dream about a time when they have no enemies left to deal with. But when that happens, they become their own worst enemy. As you explained, for the last couple of years, Erdogan was finding it difficult to survive without powerful enemies. Hopefully, these protests will give him a powerful enemy to worry about and he will stop being his own nemesis.
Sadly, Erdogan does not seem to have enough humility left to take a step back; so things are getting worse, not better.