It’s easy to characterize the disorders in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and elsewhere in Turkey as a “Turkish spring” – mass demands for democracy in yet another Middle East country. But these tumultuous events, rather than a sign of failure of democracy in Turkey, might demonstrate quite the opposite – an affirmation of the further maturing of Turkish politics, now resilient enough to experience periods of public discontent that actually strengthen participatory democracy.
Wishful thinking? Not quite. There are multiple reasons why Taksim Square is worlds apart from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, not least of which is that the demonstrations are not against some entrenched dictatorship, but against a prime minister who has won three successive free and fair elections. No other Turkish prime minister has ever accomplished that.
No, the problem can be more accurately described as a reaction against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s prime ministerial high-handedness that in part stems from political fatigue – even arrogance – after 10 long years of power, and other social grievances. Mr. Erdogan has simply stepped on a lot of toes by now and seems increasingly tone-deaf and imperious in the face of public discontent with many of his policies. If he remains insensitive to a large segment of public opinion, it will cost him his job, and maybe even bring down his party in the next elections.
Erdogan won office by gaining widespread public support, not just from religious-minded Turks, but also from liberal and intellectual circles that approve of his skillful victory over the long-time military domination of Turkish politics and greater liberalization. He has transformed the Turkish economy, making it the 17th-largest economy in the world. He has introduced major political, economic, and social reforms while zealously seeking EU membership.
He has done more to move toward settlement of the long-standing and bloody Kurdish problem than any other Turkish prime minister. He has adopted a dramatically bold new foreign policy that moves Turkey away from being simply a “faithful US ally” to being a new independent geopolitical player in its own right in the West, Middle East, Africa, and Eurasia.
But Erdogan may be running out of steam after a decade of accomplishments, and now sowing the seeds of his own destruction through impulsiveness and arrogance that have cost him much public support – symbolized in his ill-conceived plans to “develop” Gezi Park in Istanbul, now a symbol of many other public grievances as well.
Of course, there are many other things going on here; politics is never simple. Erdogan has his enemies. Some of the once-dominant and now displaced Kemalist ruling class would love to bring him down; so would many Turkish nationalists who stand against concessions to the large Kurdish minority that would recognize their independent cultural aspirations. The displaced army is miffed. Strong secularists resent his opening of the public sphere to Islam – long a major no-no of the Kemalists. Corruption has grown after 10 years of power.
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.
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.