Turkey's bombastic prime minister has convinced himself that just because he wins elections, he can govern the country all by himself.
"Where they gather 100,000, I can bring together 1 million."
That was not only one of the highlights of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initial reaction to the massive protest against his government that shook Turkey in the past weekend. It was also the gist of his problem.
Erdogan, the most popular premier Turkey has seen in the past half-century, believes in what political scientists would call a "majoritarian democracy." In other words, he believes that once he gets the majority of the votes — which he has done successfully throughout the past decade — he has the right to make every single political decision in the country. He disregards all opposing views, and, furthermore, employs an overbearing tone to shout them down.
The recent dispute over Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which triggered the demonstrations, was a perfect example. Erdogan wants to rebuild the square according to his own vision, so the Istanbul municipality, which is controlled by his political party, initiated a reconstruction project. One of the details is the replacement of Gezi Park, a small green area, with a reconstructed Ottoman military barracks, which, as Erdogan said in passing, can also serve as a shopping mall.
But many Taksim residents want to keep their park as it is, and some founded a civil society initiative asking to be heard. But the prime minister never wanted to listen. Instead, when they launched the "Occupy Taksim" campaign last week, a movement with a similar spirit to the "Occupy" movements in Western countries, Erdogan’s government responded in a way one should not see in any democracy — with a police attack on peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and water canons.
As the news of the crackdown spread quickly on Twitter, thousands gathered in Taksim to help the initially small group of demonstrators. Continuing police brutality only added more fuel to the fire, and in a couple of hours the crowd had already grown into tens of thousands. They were soon joined by masses protesting all across the country. One of the demonstrators, appearing on Al Jazeera, summed up the basic demand: "We just want Erdogan to listen to us."
But listening is not Erdogan’s strong suit. Instead, he branded the protesters as "a bunch of looters" guided by extremist elements, and denounced Twitter as "a menace to society" that was spreading lies about what was happening in Turkey. (There were indeed some false tweets about imaginary police atrocities that provoked the crowd, but they were also soon proved false on Twitter as well.)
It should be noted that not every group that hit the streets are as liberal-minded as the initial "Occupy Taksim" group. Erdogan has enemies from all walks of life, including Turkish ultra-nationalists who despise him for granting too many rights for Kurds and initiating a historic peace deal with armed Kurdish separatists. Some left-wing groups despise him for making Turkey too "capitalist," and bash him for opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who they see as an "anti-imperialist" hero. Some of these more ideological protesters also engaged in vandalism in the second day of the protests, including the arson of the headquarters of Erdogan’s political party in the city of Izmir.
But still, the overwhelming majority of the protesters were peaceful, and their basic demand was just: a more liberal and participatory democracy than what Erdogan has constructed. They want the government to stop manipulating the media, restrain the police, and try to build consensus with the opposition on major political issues.
The tension between Erdogan’s moral conservatism — which some call "soft Islamism" — and the more secular part of Turkish society is also a component of this whole story. Erdogan did not turn Turkey into an "Islamic state," and he probably never will impose sharia, or Islamic law. But he asserts religious values and symbols all the time, and recently pushed through a law that places new limitations to alcohol consumption. In a recent TV program, he defended such measures by saying, "I love my nation, and I want to protect them from bad habits." But there are many Turks do not want to live under such a "loving," and imposing, national father.
The big question is where Turkey will head from here. There is no reason to think that Erdogan lost too many votes in the face of these protests — some even argue that his voting base is even more intact. But he, and his party, should now see that ballots are not the only thing that counts. In the several speeches he made after the beginning of the events, Erdogan remained defiant, while still acknowledging "mistakes" in police behavior. Meanwhile President Abdullah Gul, who comes from the same political camp as Erdogan but has repeatedly proven more moderate and liberal, declared, "in a democracy, elections are not everything" and "the messages [of the protesters] have been taken."
The optimistic view is that these protests will be watershed event that will help shape a more mature Turkish democracy. Erdogan and his political allies will restrain their hubris and seek more consensus than confrontation and imposition. The other alternative is that Erdogan, as his instincts and his hardcore supporters demand, will maintain his intimidating style, turning Turkey into a fully illiberal democracy — and putting it on the path to be shaken again and again by massive protests.
Sadly, that would result in the destruction of the success story Erdogan has created in the past decade by his own hands.