Protest and Democracy in Turkey

by Joshua Tucker on June 13, 2013

in Comparative Politics,Protest

The following is a guest post from political scientist Daniel Ksleman. His research addresses the changing nature of political parties in contemporary democracies, with a particular focus on elections and democracy in modern Turkey. He is currently an associate professor of International Relations at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, Spain.

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On May 28, a small crowd gathered in Istanbul to protest the Turkish government’s plans to transform an urban park into an Ottoman monument and commercial center. Following what has generally been deemed an excessive reaction by the police, thousands more took to the streets in support of the initial demonstrators. Protest which was initially confined quickly evolved into a larger and more aggressive expression of dissatisfaction with the incumbent Justice and Development Party, and its leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This discontent has been simmering for years, and can be understood in the context of Turkey’s enigmatic republican history. Turkey was formed in 1921 from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Having waged a successful war of independence, the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk quickly set forth on an ambitious modernization agenda. This agenda included programs aimed at a wholesale secularization of Turkish society, and envisioned an important role for the public sector in industrialization and economic management.

In part as a result of this history, political Islam and free-market economics have often made interesting ideological bedfellows in Turkish politics. This ideological profile has been distilled in the currently ruling Justice and Development Party (in Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Parti, henceforth AKParti). Since coming to power in 2002, the AKParti has promoted policies to relax restrictions on religious expression, most notably the prohibition of Islamic headscarves in government buildings. As well, they have actively supported private-sector enterprise and have increased Turkey’s international economic integration.

The now decade-long AKParti rule has in many ways been a success. Turkey witnessed a decade of economic growth and stability, and since 2007 has continued to grow despite the global economic recession. Initial efforts to relax restrictions on religious expression were met with support not only from religious conservatives, but also from a subset of liberals and intellectuals who saw these policies as promoting civil rights. As well, the provision of basic services has improved, especially in rural and working-class urban districts. Citizens who have benefited from these developments, many of whom are more religious than their urban middle- and upper-class counterparts, consistently support the AKParti, whose vote share increased from 34% in 2002, to 47% in 2007, to 50% in 2011.

Despite these successes, a decade is a long time to be in power. Opposition to policies perceived as undermining Turkey’s secularism, and as putting Turkey up ‘for sale’ to large capital interests, has been brewing for years. It is no surprise that the current unrest was ignited by anger at the government’s plan to turn a park into a commercial zone. It is also no surprise that recent prohibitions on the sale of alcohol have become a focal point for demonstrators; as has the government’s support of anti-Assad insurgents in Syria, who hail primarily from Syria’s Sunni Muslim population (AKParti leadership, cadre, and supporters are primarily Sunni).

Many of these protesters feel effectively disenfranchised by the electoral process in Turkey, and for good reason. Given the AKParti’s formidable electoral machine, the prospect of exerting influence through normal representative channels is, at least in the immediate future, quite dim. This prospect is further dimmed by the presence of mostly inept opposition parties, whose rhetoric and organizational forms have evolved little since the 1990’s. Faced with almost certain electoral defeat, and an opposition which has failed to provide them adequate voice, many young Turks have chosen to express their preferences and frustrations in the street. Frankly, it was only a matter of time.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has met the protests dismissively, labeling the protesters “bums” and “looters”. Addressing the protesters in a speech on Saturday, May 30th, the Prime Minister claimed “If you gather a hundred thousand people…I will gather a million.” He has also suggested that “…we will build in Taksım, and do not need the permission of the CHP [primary opposition party] or of a few bums to do it.” This language is at best indelicate, and at worst displays a lack of democratic sensibility.

Accused of autocratic leanings, Erdoğan has continually referred to himself as a “servant of the people,” and has pointed to the party’s strong electoral hegemony as evidence of his democratic credentials. This belies a hyper-majoritarian vision of democracy: elections are held, citizens vote, and the winner implements policy as he or she sees fit. The Prime Minister has done little to demonstrate that he understands the flip-side of majority rule: the importance of preserving minority rights and influence, and of protecting citizens from a ‘tyranny of the majority’ via credible checks and balances.

After a period of relative calm in Istanbul (though less so in Ankara and other Turkish cities), on June 11 the police once again descended on Taksım square, drenching protesters in tear gas. While some retaliated by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, many in the opposition decried their fellow demonstrators’ use of violence. Murky rumors, supported by primarily anecdotal evidence, hint that the most provocative elements within the opposition camp may in fact be associated with the police, disguised as protesters, and charged with giving the movement a bad name through the promotion of anarchy.

One would like to see cooler heads prevail. Last week, with Erdoğan on a diplomatic trip to North Africa, competing voices surfaced within the AKParti. Turkish President Abdullah Gül was conciliatory, stating: “There is nothing more natural than various ways of expression other than elections if there are different views….” The relationship between President Gül and Prime Minster Erdoğan has become tense in recent years. As a result, some believe that the President’s rhetorical moderation represents an opportunistic move to weaken Prime Minster Erdoğan’s position, rather than a genuine expression of democratic ecumenism.

Regardless, this begs a variety of questions as to the protests’ likely medium-term consequence for Turkish politics. Though I’ve been impressed over the years with many of the AKParti’s social and economic accomplishments, long and uninterrupted periods of rule by a single party have the potential to undermine democracy, even if that party comes to power via the mechanism of free and fair elections.

Turkey’s experience with coalition government is less than ideal. Indeed, the AKParti came to power in part as a result of dissatisfaction with the incompetence and corruption of dysfunctional coalition governments in the 1990’s. However, despite this less than glowing history, after a decade of one-party rule it seems high time that Turkish politics return to a more consensual model, even if that implies a bit of gridlock and inefficiency. Both the emergence of a viable opposition party, and/or the formation a new center-right organization by AKParti dissidents, would facilitate greater consensualism.

Absent this type of development, Turks who feel alienated by the electoral process will continue to take to the streets in years to come. The failure of elections as a mechanism for inclusive democratic representation is not unique to Turkey. In Spain the ‘Indignados’ movement used protest to oppose policies which were perceived as imposed by non-elected outside forces. In the United States, the ‘Occupy’ movement has opposed the influence of corporate money on both main political parties. When elections fail to represent minority interests, provide no bulwark against the imposition of policy by international actors, and empower special interests at the expense of common citizens, motivated people find other ways of making their voices heard.

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