Wednesday
Jun052013

Turkey 

So, normally I write one blog post at irregular intervals of weeks or months at a time. This time, I'm writing two in one day. That's because so much stuff is happening.

Hopefully, by now, everyone is aware of what's going on in Turkey. I will re-cap: Prime Minister Erdogan of the AKP has been in power for about ten years. He has presided over a booming economy and an overall increase in the welfare of Turkish people. He is fairly popular and has a large majority in Parliament. However, he is also autocratic, arrogant, dismissive of any kind of opposition, and totally uninterested in any kind of concession or compromise with those who disagree with his policies. His reign has been marked by two trends, both worrisome: one, a moderate rollback of Turkey's secularism, and two, a diminution of Turkey's democratic system.

Secularism

Turkey has been an almost aggressively secular state since its founding by Ataturk. Although there have always been elements of society that wanted Turkey to be more of an Islamic state, they have always been balanced by more modern elements that appreciate secularism. Foremost among the supporters of the secular state has been the Turkish army, which has never hesitated to interfere in politics. Although the army has been quiet for more than ten years, now (the last direct interference was in 1997, to remove the Islamist prime minister Erbakan), it did state clearly in 2007 that it would be ready to step in if necessary.

Erdogan, leader of the moderately Islamist AKP, has never openly attacked Turkey's secularism, but has quietly (and unilaterally) passed laws restricting the sale of alcohol, easing restrictions on the wearing of the headscarf in public office, and other issues relating to the relationship between religion and the state. Some Turks, though it is not clear how many, are concerned about this.

Democracy

Turkey has been held up as a model of democracy for the Muslim world. It has free elections, a parliamentary system (that ostensibly limits the power of the executive), and an independent judiciary. It has a fairly active political culture, and strong civil society.

Erdogan has used his victory at the ballot boxes to impose an increasingly authoritarian vision on Turkey, however. He has flat out said that since about 50% of the population voted for him, no one is allowed to oppose anything he wants to do. He has worked to get the constitution amended to change the parliamentary system to a presidential one, thus simultaneously getting around the term limits to which he is subject as prime minister (by becoming president) and strengthening the power of the executive. He has engaged in multiple building projects over the strong opposition of significant segments of the public, mostly to the benefit of his friends and political allies. He has enormous influence over the press and media. In short, he is behaving a great deal like an Ottoman sultan, and clearly wishes that's what he was.

These, therefore, were the dual grievances that erupted into protests and demonstrations over three quarters of the country when police used excessive force against a small group of people protesting the demolition of the last green spot in the middle of Istanbul.

You can follow in the news how the protests are going - two people confirmed dead, about 3,000 wounded, police using tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and - by some reports - plastic bullets, against largely peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. The irony of the situation is not lost on anyone - Erdogan abandoned his long-time ally Bashar al Assad, accusing Assad of inexcusible violence against peaceful protesters. The protesters have issued a list of demands, ranging from saving the small park in Taksim square to larger political reform. The deputy prime minister and the president have sounded conciliatory tones, but the man that matters is Erdogan, and from all we know about him, he is not the man to give in to anyone's demands.

So what will happen? I see a lot of parallels here to Egypt, and I think things will play out fairly similarly. Let's think through the options.

1. The protesters may lose enthusiasm and go home. Then I suspect that nothing will change, but it would probably take very little to bring them back to the streets. I also think it's fairly unlikely that the protesters will just go home.

2. If the protesters do not just go home, and the protests continue and spread, then the government has a serious problem. On the one hand, Erdogan will almost certainly refuse to deal with them, and then the protesters will become more angry and determined. On the other hand, Erdogan cannot really afford - either in terms of his domestic or international allies - to continue the brutality. There may be a power struggle within the AKP, as other members come to see Erdogan as a liability. However, he is powerful, and his party may not be able to compel him to step down. 

My guess is that if this goes on too long, the army will step in. They have an interest in opposing Erdogan's Islamicism, they have an interest in keeping Turkey quiet in the face of Syria's civil war, and they have no interest whatsoever in helping the police quell the riots through violence. The army is of course also the major beneficiary of the NATO alliance, and will not want anything to happen in Turkey that weakens Turkey's place in that organization. The public might even welcome army involvement, as long as it restored order and led to a less arrogant replacement for Erdogan. Both President Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Arinc would be reasonable choices and acceptable to both Parliament and probably the people, especially if they seemed willing to listen to the protesters' demands.

No matter what happens, this will not be pretty. Unless the demonstrators simply break up and go home, Turkey is in for some messiness.

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