The past week has seen unprecedented street protests across Turkey against the increasingly autocratic government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Soli Ozel writes that the protests reflect an increasing dissatisfaction among the Turkish population with the government’s passage of important legislation with little public debate. He argues that the protests may well be the first steps in a new road towards creating a genuinely secular, democratic republic.
Why is it that with all the accumulated experience in the world and the dramatic ends of many political leaders, democratic or authoritarian, Lord Acton always turns out to be right? Yes indeed, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And when that happens, sooner or later the power holders slip and lose it all, at times in degrading fashion. This is the most important message of the events that have taken place in Turkey over the course of the past week.
Turkey’s immensely successful Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, re-elected for the third time with half the tallied vote in 2011, is now being taught one of the lessons that follows absolute corruption of power. He faces a massive popular mobilisation. This is mainly in reaction to his arrogance, autocratic tendencies, intolerance and abrasive/condescending style.
Once his power was consolidated and the demilitarisation of Turkish politics was secured and the secularist authoritarians were on the defensive, Erdogan all but dropped any effort to build consensus for his policies. He stopped listening to the liberal democratic circles that were instrumental in helping him gain legitimacy when he was first elected both domestically and abroad. A strictly majoritarian understanding of politics, as against a pluralistic one, not just in legislative matters but in terms of lifestyles and cultural topics as well gained further ground.
Increasingly many important pieces of legislature were passed without much public debate if at all. The government’s insistence, again without public debate or any effort to explain the matter to the public, on pursuing nuclear power reactors and urban renovation projects that destroy the natural and historical environment of Turkey’s major cities accumulated resentment among disparate segments of the population. Most importantly it fed a feeling of rising injustice and unfairness. A sense of being closed in began to set in.
The mobilisation started in Turkey’s main metropolis, Istanbul and solidarity marches and movements then spread through the entire country. It flared up only after the police used excessive force and pepper gas against a couple of dozen people who were sitting in the park to obstruct the uprooting of trees. This move was part of a vast project to turn Taksim Square into a pedestrian zone that the government undertook without consulting or listening to the residents of the neighbourhood, urban planners or other concerned constituencies.
This type of civil, spontaneous, politically unaffiliated movement is unprecedented in Turkey. Just like the occupy movements that spread around the world, or the demonstrations of the Arab Spring, it is urban, youthful, educated and non-ideological. As in other similar demonstrations the social media played a determining role both in the organisation of the mobilisation and dissemination of information and images from Taksim and other places.
One side effect of the events had been the loss by the Turkish media of the last vestiges of legitimacy it may have enjoyed by a public that was sickened by its sycophancy, subservience and sacrifice of media ethics and professionalism at the altar of business interests. On Friday night of the 28 news channels Turkey has, just one covered the events in Taksim.
Even after the mobilisation comes to an end, as it inevitably will, the sense of empowerment against a government that dominated the political scene for the last ten and a half years, that both centralised and monopolised power is unlikely to evaporate. In all likelihood the past five days will take their rightful place in Turkey’s chronicles as the “five days that changed the course of Turkey’s politics in the 21st Century”.
In fact these were the days when Turkey’s urban public broke the wall of fear that has been built around it particularly in the last three-to-four years and escaped from its desperation caused by the absence of a viable democratic alternative on the political scene. Long quiescent and atomised, the urban public revolted against the arbitrariness of the government, against disenfranchisement, against violations of their private space, against expropriations of their property to make space for gated communities or shopping malls.
The public is also aghast because of assaults to their way of life, (symbolised most notably by attempts to criminalise abortion and the new alcohol regulation bill that was passed) and detentions without trials for months for the simplest act of protest by students and others. It is incensed by the fact of Turkey ranking first in terms of journalists’ incarceration in the world. Finally it just had enough of the verbal abuse and police brutality that inflicts all political and public space in Turkey.
It is not yet clear that the prime minister will hear the message or heed the lesson. His initial reactions suggest that he will do neither. But he should. For this movement is not, or no longer, just about the Gezi Park, that little patch of a park with its 606 trees near Istanbul’s main public square. It is about Turkey’s future identity. It is about creating a genuinely secular, democratic republic that is comfortable with all the constituent elements of its identity and the institutionalisation of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and respect for citizens’ private lives.
This week Turkey is closer to attaining that goal than last, however arduous, long and full of traps the road ahead might be.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Soli Özel – Istanbul Kadir Has University
Soli Özel is a Professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. He is also a columnist for Haberturk daily and an adviser to the chairman of TUSIAD on foreign policy issues.