Turkey, a country that has been shown as an example of democracy and progress in the Middle East for some time now, has been in the news this past week because of the widespread government protests. The protests started in Gezi Park to demonstrate against the government project to eliminate a green space in Istanbul to build another shopping mall; and thanks to social media, they have spread across the country and turned into a general protest against government policies and in particular against the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan called the protesters “a few looters.” The most widely chanted slogan of the protest is now “Tayyip, resign!”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the most popular Prime Minister in the history of modern Turkey. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) collected enough votes to have a majority in the parliament three times in a row, and moreover their vote share has increased with every election, which is quite unusual for incumbent parties. The party got more than 50% of the votes in the last parliamentary election in 2011 (edit: correction, the party received just 49.83%).
So, what went wrong?
Erdogan’s understanding of democracy is all about ballot power. As his ballot power increased, he started to get more and more authoritarian as if people had given him the mandate to rule in any way he wanted. Over time, the Erdogan that was quite a reformer in his first term disappeared, and we got this angry, know-it-all, almost Putin-esque PM that we did not know as much before. And the new Erdogan was here to stay.
He started with art. He did not like the “friendship” sculpture at the Turkey-Armenia border and had it demolished. Then he started to pry into show business. One immensely popular TV series “Magnificent Century” about the life and times of the Ottoman Emperor Sultan Soleiman the Lawmaker was his first target. Erdogan did not like the fact that the series showed Soleiman as a love maker in the Harem more than a war maker on the battlefield. He publicly said the producers of that show “should be taught a lesson.” In another popular TV show Behzat C, the producers had to marry two characters just because the government did not like them living together unmarried. Erdogan did not stop there. He pried into women’s private lives. He declared “abortion is murder.” It has to be noted that in a heavily Muslim country like Turkey, abortion had never been a political issue before. He also said he wanted to raise “religious generations.” In a much more dangerous twist, he started to have journalists fired from their jobs when they wrote something he did not like, including ones that had supported him during the normalization of civil-military relations in Turkey. The number of journalists in jail is now at a record high. Media freedom is under a very high risk. Most of the media groups are parts of big businesses that get a lot of government contracts. The government has used carrots and sticks with them to impose auto-censorship in the media and got results. For example, TV channels did not do any reporting on the Gezi Park protests the first few days and most outrageous of all, one major news channel (yes, news channel) was showing a documentary on penguins as the police pepper-gassed the protestors on the streets of Istanbul. Finally, a few weeks ago, the parliament passed some new regulations that would limit marketing and serving alcohol in a country where alcohol consumption is minimal and Erdogan called all people that drank “alcoholics.” Bottom line is that a lot of people now see Erdogan’s policies as a “cultural war” against their lifestyles, and see the government’s so-called “Taksim project” as an extension of this war: After all, Taksim is a neighborhood whose lifestyle Erdogan dislikes, with nightlife and drinking, and does not set an example for the ‘religious generations’ he wants to raise.” Another popular slogan in the protests is “Cheers, Tayyip!”
Erdogan has no tolerance for criticism. It seems he knows what is good and what is bad for citizens of Turkey, and so they have to obey him as if they are teenagers being disciplined by their dad. But times are changing, and Erdogan is behind the times in this one. This is for much more than “a few trees” and by many more than “a few looters.”
Erdogan still relies on “his 50%” and he said he had difficulty keeping “his 50%” at home” as protests occurred in Gezi Park, almost all cities in Turkey as well as in major cities in Europe and North America. But I do not see him recovering from this easily. He and his party collected votes not only from the party’s main base of religious conservatives, but also from the very people that he calls “looters” and “alcoholics” today, thanks to growing economy and civilianization of the regime. In the last few days, Turkish stocks market saw the largest single day drop of 10% in the last decade, several labor unions stopped work and people of all ages, ethnic, socioeconomic and political backgrounds are still chanting “Tayyip, resign!” despite outrageous police brutality. This is not good news for Erdogan.
But he is still not listening.
ps. edited slightly as I put up a wrong version initially