|No picnic in the Park: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tries to shut down opposition voices (top); protesters in Gezi Park where it all began|
CAMBRIDGE: Following a rousing speech by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last June, throngs of his supporters took control of Gezi Park and pronounced the end of the opposition protest. A snowballing opposition movement against the prime minister and his party has since come to pose serious challenge to his rule.
On June 16 Erdoğan threw a party for his supporters in Istanbul’s Kazlıçeşme, along the Sea of Marmara. Pacing a stage before hundreds of thousands, his blue plaid shirtsleeves rolled up, he spoke of what the AKP, or Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party, had accomplished during the past 11 years: running water, improved infrastructure, growing incomes, headscarves allowed in universities and government workplaces. He reminded the audience that the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, had once changed the call to prayer into Turkish.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” Erdoğan chanted the first line of the ezan, and the crowd joined him, cheering wildly. He spoke of the anti-government protests that had begun several weeks before, insisting they were backed by foreign forces, part of a “big game” targeting Turkey.
“Gezi Park bizim!” he thundered. Bizim is word for the exclusive “ours” – as opposed to hepimizin, or “all of ours” – and in the Turkish political context implies us against them. Erdoğan was exploiting deep fault-lines: Turkey versus those who want to carve her up, religious conservatives against the secular elite. “They don’t want you in their park,” he growled, gesturing towards Gezi Park.
As the rally ended, public buses, designated for the purpose, delivered men from Kazlıçeşme to Gezi Park. Police had driven out the protesters the day before. The crowds at the rally and the emptiness of the square drove home the prime minister’s point: The protests were over.
Bizim is word for the exclusive “ours” – as opposed to hepimizin, “all of ours” – it implies us against them.
But Erdoğan’s troubles had just begun. Protesters who were once isolated – the LGBT community, Non-Capitalist Muslims, Alevis, Kurds, Kemalists, feminists and football fan clubs – began gathering nightly in parks across the country. Police violence exacerbated resentment and unnerved foreign investors. A corruption investigation erupted on December 17th, resulting in the arrest of the sons of three AKP ministers and prominent businesspeople. Leaked phone recordings implicated Erdoğan and his family as well, upsetting even some AKP loyalists. Blaming a “dirty plot” by foreigners and a Pennsylvania-based imam and supporter Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan ordered four of his ministers to resign, reassigned thousands of police officers and prosecutors, and pushed through laws allowing the justice minister to choose top members of the judiciary and the government to block websites without a court order. Another proposed law empowers Turkish domestic intelligence, or the MIT, to seize evidence from any public institution, including individual bank records.
The harsh response amplified rumors and complaints about AKP rule – about better public schools transformed into religious imam hatip schools, hospitals performing abortions without anesthetic, the Erdoğan family’s wealth. Those clamoring for an end to the Erdoğan regime are not going away.
But change may not happen soon. Domestically, Turks lack a credible replacement for those in charge. Under the AKP, the GDP has more than tripled, and a ceasefire agreement was reached with Kurdish separatists after 30 years of fighting.
In the short term, a significant change for Turkey’s relations with current allies is unlikely. Western allies, despite their recent criticism of the country’s authoritarianism, likewise do not see a ready replacement in the region. Growing numbers of oil and gas pipelines in Turkey bring energy from East to West. Turkey will take over the rotating presidency of the G20 in 2015. As a NATO member, Turkey hosts an early-warning radar system to shield Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles and a strategically important airbase at Incirlik. Its agreement on a Cyprus confederacy could bring Cypriot and Israeli gas to and through Turkey, and the projected boost to the island’s economy would be welcome news for the European Union.
In the short term, a significant change for Turkey’s relations with current allies is unlikely.
Certainly, Turkey has reached out to Russia and Iran for energy, and purchased a missile defense system from a Chinese firm under US sanctions. But it is unlikely such projects would replace European and American security arrangements and markets. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s March 1st trip to Crimea to state support for Ukrainian sovereignty suggests that on many issues Turkey remains on the same page as its current allies.
But the past nine months have also planted the seeds for long-term change in Turkey. The AKP may well sweep the March 30 local elections, and Erdoğan could win Turkey’s first direct presidential election in August and even reach his oft-stated goal of ruling until the Republic’s centennial in 2023. If Erdoğan wins the presidency, he will swap places with President Abdullah Gül, who despite objecting to the new laws is reluctant to split the party they founded together. Erdoğan’s charisma draws a core of voters – only if his megalomania became truly self-destructive might Gül challenge him. Even then, the absence of a strong opposition would make change from the AKP difficult.
More importantly, Turkish people themselves have changed. The parents of young Gezi Park protesters, shaken by the political violence of the 1970s, had urged them to avoid politics. After Gezi they found themselves joyously engaged. At public forums – a first in Turkish history – people take turns speaking about everything from police violence to improving education and neighborhood gentrification. The focus is now not on ideology but the shared concerns of people living in a community, not on bizim – the exclusive “ours” that emphasizes society’s rifts – but hepimizin, all of ours. People organize protests against massive new developments, killing of stray animals and the new internet law. They buy newspapers that announce upcoming public forums, despite receiving the information on Twitter – the ineffectual ban on which only increased tweets.
Citizens will not back down. Will Erdoğan? The prime minister is challenged by both the courts and the constitution. He moved to block changing the domain name system, settings, one way around the Twitter ban. But five days later, the courts overturned the ban for violating principles of freedom of expression and the right to communication freely, as cited in Turkey's Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The struggle will continue. Protesters are mobilizing volunteers to monitor local voting stations on March 30th.
A different political culture would not necessarily make Turkey more pro- Western.
“We did not earn certain rights,” an Istanbul resident explained. “They were given to us readily by some leaders.” Perhaps, she added, this is a necessary fight; to become owners of democracy and individual rights, Turks must claim them, instead of receiving them as grateful loyalists to a strongman.
The impact on foreign relations depends both on Turkey and the outside world. The country would likely try to join free-trade agreements like the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if the United States and its partners reach consensus on them. EU membership, which seems unlikely, may lose its attraction altogether, if Europe’s economic travails persist.
A different political culture would not necessarily make Turkey more pro-Western – Gezi protesters also condemned US hegemony. A new Turkey will define its interests without regard to East or West. As Turks across their society’s many divides will explain proudly, echoing the Republic’s first leader Ataturk, they resemble only themselves. They cannot say what the coming form of Turkey might be. They have yet to decide.