Here’s What You Need to Know about the Clashes in Turkey

Has the government of Prime Minister Erdogan finally succumbed to the authoritarian impulses that doomed so many other Turkish leaders before him?


ANKARA, May 31 — As I write these words in my Ankara hotel in the early morning hours, I can still hear the distant voices of massed demonstrators chanting slogans a few blocks from the presidential palace and the prime minister’s residence. Thousands of people are continuing to protest the government and its deeply undemocratic actions. The TV is showing images of the brutal police attack against peaceful demonstrators that took place earlier today in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

The clashes in Istanbul go on as I write: Emergency rooms in the hospitals near Taksim are struggling to cope with the hundreds of people injured by the police. Earlier today in Ankara, where the protests have so far remained largely peaceful, I’ve watched protestors linking arms to form human chains blocking the streets. What struck me the most was the reaction from ordinary people. Rather than protesting the snarled traffic caused by the demonstrators, Ankarans passing by in their cars supported the protestors by honking and waving victory signs from their windows.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking some of my students from the United States on a trip around Turkey. The aim of our trip has been to explore the pros and cons of the country’s development experience. We started with the early days of the republic (overshadowed by the war for independence, ethnic cleansing, authoritarianism, forced cultural modernization, and economic failures) and have worked our way up to the challenges that shape the country today (democratization, the Kurdish conflict, the rise of the current Islamist government, and the tensions between secular Kemalism and religious politics). I’ve done my best to help my students see the forty shades of blue separating the empty half of the glass from the part that’s full.

There’s no denying that Turkey is now a thriving emerging market economy with a vibrant civil society. Istanbul last year attracted more tourists than Amsterdam or Rome, ranking right behind London and Paris in the number of tourist arrivals. There are more arts concerts in Istanbul in a given month than in a year in most E.U. member states. On the economic front, the inflation rate has been brought down from 100 percent just a few years ago to below 10 percent today. Public debt is down to manageable levels; this month Ankara paid back its last remaining loan to the IMF. Interest rates are at record lows. More than 98 percent of all Turkish exports are in manufacturing products, and Turkey now ranks among the top producers of household durable goods and automobiles in Europe.

On the political side, Turkey has been now more than 30 years without a full-fledged military coup, and the country has had free elections (despite the generals’ interventions) since 1950. The military appears to have finally returned to barracks for good, and its leaders show little inclination to return to the past. The Ergenekon trials, which have seen once-unaccountable generals compelled to defend their actions in court, are a welcome sign for those of us who have long pushed for Turkish society to adopt the political and legal norms worthy of modern democracies. I’ve supported efforts to reform the judicial system, making judges and attorneys more aware of their responsibility to defend individual freedoms rather than the interests of a small military-bureaucratic elite who see themselves as the true owners of Turkey.

As for the current government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his performance does earn a top grade in at least some respects. Without question his greatest achievement has been his opening to the Kurds. Erdogan’s AK Party has passed more laws than any previous governments recognizing the rights of Kurds in Turkey, including opening a Kurdish channel on public TV and starting Kurdish language and literature programs in universities. Yet even these positive steps pale in regard to his dramatic negotiations with the Kurdish guerilla group PKK — a truly groundbreaking event. Today’s Turkey, in short, is very far indeed from the state that was once known, almost proverbially, as the "sick man of Europe."

Recently, however, these positive developments have been overshadowed by less promising trends that are causing citizens to feel increasing anxiety about the future of the country. When I started the trip with my students just a few weeks ago, I was still, on balance, positive about the prospects for Turkey. But now that’s changed.

With no public consultation or discussion, the Erdogan government decided earlier this month to approve a project that would transform Taksim Square into a shopping center, rerouting the traffic that now passes through this vital hub on the European side of Istanbul through tunnels underneath. The news of the project has generated a flood of angry responses from the public, all of which the government has uniformly ignored. Among other things, the proposed redevelopment plan will wipe out one of the few remaining greenspaces in the densely packed area — the latest in a long series of similarly insensitive urban design schemes.

The Taksim plan follows another controversial plan to build a gigantic and spectacularly ugly new bridge next to the current site of the Galata Bridge, one of Istanbul’s longest-standing architectural landmarks. The bridge project is the brainchild of Istanbul’s Islamist mayor, an Erdogan ally, who designed it himself. The almost-completed bridge has already completely transformed the silhouette of the old city. Apart from the fact that this is the mayor’s sole attempt to dabble in architecture, the complete absence of any public consultation or competition for the project has confirmed, for many Turks, Erdogan’s seeming aspiration to crown himself as the new sultan of Turkey. The ruling party’s misguided ambitions for Galata and Taksim come after a series of demolitions of 500-year-old Istanbul neighborhoods such as Sulukule, Tarlabasi, or Balat that have fed public discontent — particularly since many of those who benefited also appear to have unseemly links with the ruling Islamists. Just to make matters worse, last month the government also finalized a contract for a  new nuclear power point despite mass public opposition to nuclear power throughout the country.

Erdogan’s decisions regarding a proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus and a new Istanbul airport have followed similar lines. The government announced that construction of the bridge and airport will entail the destruction of one of the most important green spaces of the city — including the loss of more than 300,000 trees. Just this week the president and the prime minister unilaterally announced that they have decided to name the bridge after one of the most controversial Ottoman sultans in Turkish history, Yavuz Sultan Selim. Selim is remembered, among other things, for ordering the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of members of
the Alevite sect
, who today comprise Turkey’s biggest religious minority.

All of these issues added up to a highly flammable brew of discontent — which the government then ignited by declaring a de facto state of martial law in Istanbul in order to ban people from celebrating May Day in Taksim Square. The police and the governor of Istanbul stopped all ferry travel on the Bosphorus, raised two bridges on the Golden Horn, stopped all bus and metro service to and from the Taksim neighborhood, and unleashed waves of tear gas on the roughly 3,000 demonstrators who still managed to reach Taksim square for the protests that day. Erdogan justified his decision by saying that those who went to Taksim aimed only to protest his government, not to celebrate May Day — as if this somehow justified his actions.

Just to make everything worse, the prime minister announced last week a new set of strict restrictions on the consumption and sale of alcohol in Turkey to "protect new generations from such un-Islamic habits" and raise them according to the Turkish and Islamic culture. While Erdogan’s many fans among the Turkish electorate probably welcome such measures, it has aggravated the many others who prefer a secular lifestyle and reject the imposition of religious rules on a diverse society.

But there’s another issue that has is making many Turks wary of the current administration’s policies. For a long time now the government has been providing direct (though undisclosed) support to Syrian opposition groups — support that has taken a variety of forms short of supplying the rebels with actual weaponry. Though Turks have little sympathy for the government in Damascus, that doesn’t mean that they automatically sympathize with those fighting against it. Many Turks correspondingly view the two car bomb attacks that killed 51 people in town of Hatay close to the border with Syria on May 11 as evidence that Erdogan’s policies may be drawing Turkey into the war. The Turkish government responded to the bombings all too characteristically: by imposing a ban on any press coverage of the incident.

The tipping point in this long series of disconcerting events came when Erdogan announced the plans for Taksim. He has personally pushed the development project forward despite the disapproval of the government’s own regulatory agencies, who have cast doubt on its legality, and even some potential investors, who have decided against participating in the scheme due to the widespread public opposition. The current clashes are, quite simply, a grassroots response to the top-down actions of the Erdogan government. The general discontent has now morphed into the anti-government demonstrations that are now being suppressed by tear gas and police batons in Istanbul and Ankara.

I am afraid that the government of Prime Minister Erdogan, like so many others before him in this country, has finally succumbed to the siren calls of dictatorship. Social engineering and authoritarian decision-making have now become the government’s top policy tools. The Islamists  seem to have replaced the Kemalist dreams of authoritarian modernization with their own dreams of authoritarian Islamization. But perhaps there is a bright spot in all of this. I suspect that the current protests in Ankara and Istanbul will soon spread to other cities. If that happens, it could very well mark the beginning of the end of Erdogan’s ambitions to govern against the will of his own citizenry.

Firat Demir is an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma.