Turkey's Summer of Discontent
Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow
The public rioting and resultant police crackdown in a number of Turkish cities has left political analysts scratching their heads. With over 1,700 people arrested so far at demonstrations that have spread from Istanbul to Izmir and beyond, some analysts are forecasting a ‘Turkish Spring’. At a recent news conference, Prime Minster Erdogan stated that those drawing analogies between Taksim and Tahrir "don't know Turkey." However there are – at the very least – superficial similarities: mainly younger generation protestors, concentrated in urban centres, expressing frustration at the autocratic politics of the ruling party, in this case Erdogan's Justice and Development Party or AKP. Other analysts argue this is a more narrowly focused activism than that which led to the collapse of the Mubarak regime – an environmentalist, anti-capitalist flare up that will die out if the government gives in. These analysts are focused on the trigger: the confiscation of a public park in Istanbul’s Taksim district in favour of developing scarce green space into a shopping mall. But with demonstrations in 67 towns and cities, what started as a reaction to a decision involving a single neighbourhood has clearly become something far bigger. And so still other analysts argue that while a Turkish Spring may not be around the corner, the demonstrations indicate long-simmering frustration with the socially conservative policies of the Islamist AKP, including recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol, public kissing, and abortion rights, has reached a boiling point.
All of these analysts are at least partially correct. There's an echo of Egypt but it's too early to tell how strong; the initial spark was an autocratic urban planning decision; and the social fabric of Turkish society is splitting at the seams. What’s driving the head scratching is that no one knows how potent this mixture of pent-up frustration and new grievances will prove. New developments are happening daily, many driven by social media. But even if the protests at this point lack cohesion or a clear agenda for change, Erdogan should be taking them seriously.
To understand why, the basic context for the protests must be appreciated: Turkish society today is extremely polarized. Turkey has never enjoyed a high degree of social cohesion; former President Kemal Ataturk’s single-minded state building only ever papered over historic ideological and ethnic divisions. These remain starkly visible today. Since the Islamist AKP took power, the build up of social tension has been unmistakable. One encounters the blunt anger of secular Turks in formal and informal conversations – it is never far from the surface. Secular resentment of the AKP is bubbling up, especially among the urban elite who view the Islamists as ‘backward’ countryside folk, an inferior noveau-riche who cannot be trusted to run the country. The secularists’ belief that the urban progressive core of Turkey is being eroded by the religious, close-minded policies of the AKP, who the secularists portray as betraying Ataturk’s modernizer legacy, is deepening historic secular-religious/urban-rural divisions.
The AKP obviously doesn’t anger all Turks, as its continued political success and steadily increasing share of the popular vote attest. It has pushed through a number of social policies that many lower-to-middle class Turks support, including increased access to healthcare and housing. Turkey's lower and middle classes attribute the great economic leaps that the country has made in the past decade to AKP leadership. Such credit is not unwarranted: prior to the AKP's victory, Turkey was trapped in a vicious cycle of international borrowing from the IMF, repeated bursts of hyperinflation, and widespread unemployment. Erdogan’s party has undoubtedly brought economic prosperity and stability to a volatile country, and has not faltered under a weighty history of military coup d’etats against economically dysfunctional governments. Today, Turkish capital reserves are booming, it is opening up new markets to foreign investors, its foreign investments into Africa and the Middle East are at an all time high, and it is extending its sphere of geopolitical influence by playing a much more significant role in many regional and international governance forums.
It is the extent of Turkey’s economic success that has encouraged the AKP to take more risks with regard to implementing socially conservative policies and executing its geopolitical strategy. The latter includes talking tough on Syria – no other country has adopted such a hard public line with the Assad regime – as well as pushing to resolve the issue of Kurdish independence. The AKP has at long last extended an olive branch to Turkey’s large ethnic Kurdish minority, including the infamous PKK terrorist-cum-freedom fighter group, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy for generations. It has also adopted a strong pro-Palestinian stance despite the decades of military and strategic agreements between Israel and Turkey signed by the AKP's predecessors. That the party now commands greater influence in international circles is something that makes Turks proud. That this is translating into commands for greater adherence to conservative social mores at home is something that makes many Turks nervous and evidently angry.
I don't think we are going to see the end of these protests anytime soon; more likely days or weeks of respite followed by further disruption. The social divisions in Turkey will not close because of a police crackdown, however brutal. Only political reform, currently lagging badly behind the pace of economic progress, may allow Turkey's power to keep growing in a way that all of its citizens can support. Turkish elections are on the horizon for 2014, but the prospects of the AKP lightening its hand seem slight: Erdogan has made clear that he wants constitutional reforms that will increase the power and authority of the president – a position that he has his sights set on. The opposition is denouncing the proposed constitutional reform process as an entrenching of dictatorial politics – a shameless political power play modeled on Vladamir Putin and Demetri Medvev's round of musical chairs. The longer the protests continue, the harder dialogue across political and social lines will become.
Erdogan may be right that this is no Turkish Spring, but it could very well be the start of a long Turkish summer.