So many recent mass protests – those in Ukraine, India, Brazil, Tunisia – have been spontaneous and largely leaderless. Crowds unite around an ideal, say, honest government. They assemble by word of mouth and, increasingly, social media. The protests in Turkey this week, which continue those of last summer in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, are no different. No wonder Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to ban Facebook and YouTube even as he searches for some leader to attack.
Turkey’s protests may seem like an outburst of anger. This week’s demonstrations in many cities began because of news Tuesday of the death of an innocent teen boy injured by police during last June’s mass protests. But they really reveal the wisdom of an educated middle class that ties its prosperity to individual freedoms. It rejects the creeping autocracy of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
To his credit, Mr. Erdogan has more than doubled the size of Turkey’s economy since he was elected in 2002. For the first time, Turkey has a majority of its people in the middle class. These Turks look more to each other than old-fashioned politicians to define their future. The result is a grass-roots movement loosely focused on issues such as justice, trust, and transparency.
Erdogan and the AKP could still handily win upcoming key elections, such as a March 30 vote for local government. But his fierce reaction to the protests and to reports of corruption have fractured his conservative coalition. A key political ally, a religious movement led by influential Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, has turned against him.
To stay in power, Erdogan has taken control of the judiciary in the face of the corruption allegations. He has tried to restrict content on the Internet. In his effort to suppress the military’s influence over politics, he has put innocent people in jail.
Like many leaders, Erdogan may see democracy as simply winning votes and imposing majority rule. He has poured billions into impressive tunnels and trains. But President Abdullah Gül, whose position is largely symbolic, has pointedly said, “Democracy is not just winning elections.” It is also about honoring the right to assembly, freedom of speech, clean governance, and minority rights.
When protesters gather in countries like Turkey these days, they rally around such ideals. Leaders who follow these ideals are usually the best kind.