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No 'Turkish spring': Protests in Turkey are sign of a healthy democracy

Protests in Turkey aren’t a sign of the failure of democracy there but a sign that Turkish politics is now resilient enough to experience public discontent that strengthens participatory democracy. But if Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains insensitive to public opinion, it will cost him his job.

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Despite dizzying growth, it hasn’t been all win-win either. Economic conditions deteriorated for many Turks over the long run of textbook free-market policies – paralleling economic protests against growing gaps in equality in the US, Latin America, and much of the rest of the world. Erdogan has manipulated the press via economic levers to gain more favorable treatment – just like every other Turkish political party has done over many decades. But the reader should check out columnists in the Turkish press – including the English-language press – and note the biting criticisms there as well.

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What might be the positive side of all of this? Turkish politics have undergone a huge process of maturation over the past decade: greater public awareness and knowledge, heightened participation, the emergence of new political forces out of traditional rural Anatolian classes, and expanded economic awareness and participation. The Turkish public simply expects more today – on economic, social, environmental, and political levels.

Turkish paternalism is dying – not just via the sidelining of the political power of the military, but of old entrenched social classes. Thus there is less tolerance for the headstrong and unapologetic style of the prime minister – even if he is elected. The new social profile of Turkey is more informed and critical, and demands greater public consultation. Erdogan’s responses will determine the next election.

It’s not just Turkey in isolation: Any visitor will immediately sense the emergence of global forces now at work there among an educated public that is hugely ahead of the first faltering steps of Arab populations to achieve even elementary democratic change. The real test of Turkish democracy is no longer about free elections but rather about how well it can weather and integrate public dissent over existing policies. It’s a demanding process. The politics of polarization and venomous congressional deadlock in the US does not exactly provide a model of smooth political process either. Nor do the tumultuous politics of Italy and Spain.

Chances are, Turkey will comfortably weather this political crisis, too, as it has so many others over the last decade, and will again come out stronger for it. Successfully managing crisis will strengthen and broaden the role of public opinion and growing social diversity in this developing democratic state. Erdogan personally may or may not survive the challenge; even his own party acknowledges the need to rein him in. But with any luck, there are some real silver linings to these clouds of democratic growing pains in Gezi Park.

Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, has written extensively about Turkey. He is the author, most recently, of “A World Without Islam” and “Three Truths and a Lie,” a memoir.

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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