Erdogan's Dilemma

Source: Getty
Op-Ed Foreign Policy
Summary
The mass protests in Istanbul are a reaction to Erdogan’s strategy of polarizing Turkish society to cement a pro-government majority.
Related Topics
Related Media and Tools
 

The demonstrations started in Istanbul a few days ago. The initial objective was to protect the park in Taksim, Istanbul's central square, from being demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. But the police intervened with excessive force against a peaceful assembly, liberally using tear gas to disperse protesters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the project will go ahead regardless of the "few" people that oppose it. As a result, this local dispute was unexpectedly transformed into a city and then a nation-wide mass demonstration against his polarizing style.

The mass protests should be seen as a reaction against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan's style of majoritarian governance. By cementing a pro-government majority and avoiding consensus on sensitive issues, Erdogan's political strategy has polarized Turkish society. This majoritarian approach to decision-making has worked well for him so far. He not only succeeded in setting the agenda for the country, but he also increased his popular support over three successive elections. But it now seems that this style of governance has reached the limit of Turkish society's tolerance. The recent adoption of a law on alcohol that significantly impedes the marketing, sales, and consumption of alcoholic drinks had already stirred a debate in Turkey about the government's negligence to take into account the sensitivities of Turkey's non-conservatives. Moreover, Erdogan's defense of the law by referencing religious principles only served to provoke the law's secular opponents. Instead the decision to transform a public park in the central square of Istanbul into a shopping mall became the rallying theme for many Turks to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Erdogan's leadership.

Compared to past rallies in Turkey's democratic history, this week's events stand out for a number of reasons. First, the mass demonstrations are against the non-participatory style of decision-making adopted by the Erdogan government, but they are not ideological. They have not been hijacked or led by any single political party or ideology, as the protesters hail from disparate backgrounds and represent the rich diversity of Turkish society. They are composed of youth, women, football club supporters, trade unionists, college students, NGO activists, and urban professionals.

Second, there is for the first time a sense of empowerment against a government that has dominated the political scene for the past decade. This sense of popular empowerment stands in stark contrast with the dismal performance of Turkey's parliamentary opposition. The oft-made comparisons to the Tahrir demonstrations are not correct. Turkey is a democracy and there is no call for regime change like in Egypt. The only overlap with Tahrir remains this immense sense of empowerment and emancipation by the ordinary citizens that have seen the impact they can have on the political system if they act in unison.

And then there is the media. Turkey's mainstream media has become the laughing stock of the country. While Istanbul was burning with tear gas, Turkish TV channels were busy broadcasting documentaries, cooking shows, or soap operas. The Saturday edition of the pro-government major daily Sabah has not mentioned the events. The government imposed a blackout and the widespread self-censorship further discredited the mainstream media in the eyes of the Turkish public, which turned to international media outlets or to social media to follow the events on their streets. Indeed, one clear winner has been social media. Many Turks rushed to Twitter and the like to witness the rallies in real time. According to a study conducted by New York University's Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory, the social media response to and the role of social media in the protests has been phenomenal. Within a window of 24 hours, at least two million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest, have been posted. Even after midnight on Friday, more than 3,000 tweets about the protest were published every minute.

The way forward is, however, unclear. Erdogan conceded a small victory on Saturday to the protesters by withdrawing the police forces from Taksim square and admitting to their excessive use of force. But more defiantly, he reiterated his willingness to proceed with the disputed Taksim square reconstruction project. Yet regardless of how the events unfold in the coming days, there are two conclusions that can be drawn even now from this episode of unplanned and yet massive protest movements that shook one of Europe's largest cities: one is the glaring need to fundamentally restructure the media in Turkey; and the other the urgency of behavioral change in Erdogan's leadership style.

The blatant failure of the Turkish press to fulfill, even minimally, its role to report events harms the progress of democracy in Turkey. Consequently, new measures should be legislated, such as forcing media companies to shed their non-media activities, to ensure that the independence of the media can be re-established and maintained. Another set of rules should focus on safeguarding media pluralism.

Although they do not represent an immediate threat to Erdogan's rule in Turkey, these mass protests should nonetheless be taken seriously by the Turkish prime minister. Many Turks have grown increasingly disaffected with the top-down, non-inclusive style of decision-making that has characterized the later years of the Erdogan government. They are tired of polarization and strive for more consensual politics. Erdogan needs to understand this yearning and adopt a more conciliatory mode of leadership.

But possibly even more important for Turkey's future political stability is the increasingly visible gap on the acceptable forms of dissent between the Turkish leadership and society. Erdogan seems genuinely to believe that mass protests have no place in a country administered by a strong, stable, and economically successful government. He emphasizes the ballot box as the venue for social and political stakeholders to show their disaffection with the government. "Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice," he said on Saturday. "Those who have a problem with government's policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy." But with its maturing and increasingly pluralistic civil society, Turkey has moved beyond this more limited definition of democratic freedoms. The Turkish political leadership, including the parliamentary opposition, have to readjust their outlook. Otherwise with the newly found sense of empowerment of its citizenry, public turbulence in Turkey will become much more common.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.

End of document

Comments (7)

 
 
  • Amrullah Muhammad
    Since the US invasion of Iraq, a chain reaction is taking effect, particularly in Muslim countries. Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria and now Turkey. The people of Turkey, before flaring up the situation there, should give serious thought to this aspect.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
  • An Observer
    I wonder Why not take into account the sensitives of turkey's muslim people?
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
    • Recommender replies...
      Please let me make it clear that this is not the case between Muslims and non-Muslims. Regardless of their religious view, this is the way how Turkish people living in a democratic (!) state in which 98% of the population consists of Muslims, express their own opinions and reactions. If we handle this protest considering the religion, we would ignore the Muslims who are the part of this protest.
       
       
    • a muslim from istanbul, turkey replies...
      what is "the sensitives of turkey's muslim people?" to clear the last greenery in midtown istanbul to give way to a hotel/residence/shopping mall complex many of which have already existed?
       
       
  • Javed Mir
    --transform a public park in the central square of Istanbul into a shopping mall -- and a recent adoption of a law on alcohol that significantly impedes the marketing, sales, and consumption of alcoholic--

    Both these reasons hardly seem to be the cause of that turnmoil in a democatic country -- it looks that some foreing power is playing its mischievious role and the Turkish people should follow the constitutional channels to have their grievances resolved.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
  • M.C.
    This article was written with the perspective of a western point of view. it is apperent that the writer does not know the masses thoughts about the demonstrations. Everyone can easily see the vandalism of the agitators in Taksim.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
    • c.a replies...
      also you dont know what happened in last ten years in Turkey? Erdoğan's police always use tear gas and water cannons to every protest of Roboski Massacre, Reyhanlı Rememberance...to the public. It's not about only alcohol... it's also about violence to women, obviously increasing in AKP democracy-retrubutive justice and work for every protest of AKP's economic rent project....everyone can easily see the vandalism of police and dictatorian rules of Erdogan...
       
       
Source http://carnegieeurope.eu/2013/06/02/erdogan-s-newest-dilemma/g80z

More from The Global Think Tank

In Fact

 

45%

of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.

30%

of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.

140

charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.

2.5–5

thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.

92%

of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.

$2.34

trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.

37%

of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.

72%

of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.

90%

of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.

13%

of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.

17

U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.

40%

of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.

120

million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.

60–70%

of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.

58%

of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.

67%

of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.

50%

of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.

18%

of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.

81%

of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.

32

million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3

Syrians

now needs urgent assistance.

370

political parties

contested India’s last national elections.

70%

of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.

70%

of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.

20%

of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.

58%

of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.

$536

billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.

$100

billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.

4700%

increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.

$11

billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.

2%

of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.

78

journalists

were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address in the field below to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
 
 
Carnegie Europe
 
Carnegie Europe Rue du Congrès, 15 1000 Brussels, Belgium Phone: +32 2 735 56 50 Fax: +32 2736 6222
Please note...

You are leaving the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy's website and entering another Carnegie global site.

请注意...

您离开卡内基 - 清华全球政策中心网站,进入另一个卡内基全球网站。