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Why the protests in Turkey make me optimistic about the future of democracy

ANKARA, Turkey — The police outnumbered protesters in the streets of Ankara on Wednesday. The city’s main square felt like a war zone. Police helicopters hovered over the crowds, and cars and trucks from the security forces blocked all main entrances. Shattered shop windows and billboards defaced with anti-Erdogan graffiti were everywhere. The protests around the ...

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

ANKARA, Turkey — The police outnumbered protesters in the streets of Ankara on Wednesday. The city’s main square felt like a war zone. Police helicopters hovered over the crowds, and cars and trucks from the security forces blocked all main entrances. Shattered shop windows and billboards defaced with anti-Erdogan graffiti were everywhere. The protests around the city continued right up until midnight. Clashes even occurred in the suburbs of the city as demonstrators there charged into clouds of tear gas from the police. There were also confrontations between protesters and Erdogan’s supporters. 

Eight days since they began, the clashes in Istanbul and Ankara have now spread to over 48 cities around Turkey. This is by far the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s government and his future political ambitions since he came to power in 2002. Erdogan’s unchecked confidence in his ability to steer the country in any direction his sees fit has finally met his match. The scoreboard of the protests so far includes one death, over 1,800 protesters injured, over 2,000 arrests, and thousands of empty tear gas shells fired at demonstrators. It’s been reported that the police have actually run out of tear gas and pepper spray supplies.

Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the image of the prime minster as the unshakable strong man of Turkey has been dented. Clashes are continuing in the centers of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and Antalya, the four biggest cities in Turkey. On Tuesday, the biggest public sector trade union announced a two-day strike in support of the protestors.

Erdogan has always been known for his expansive ego, and his inclination to arrogance has only been exacerbated by the wide degree of support his programs have enjoyed among the public. (To cite the most notable example, his party received 58 percent of the vote in a 2010 constitutional referendum.) Yet many of his statements and actions in recent years have alienated large segments of the population. To suppress any opposition to his policies, Erdogan has increasingly resorted to non-democratic means to suppress his opponents.

Turkey now has the highest number of journalists in jail in the world. Public intellectuals, such as the world-renowned pianist Fazil Say or the writer Sevan Nisanyan, have received prison sentences for "criticizing Islam." Erdogan has also pressured the owners of newspapers to fire journalists who criticize his policies, the most recent case involving reporter Hasan Cemal. The prime minister has even gone so far as to criticize the popular TV drama Magnificent Century for allegedly misrepresenting "his Ottoman ancestors."

The Erdogan-ordered destruction of an Armenian-Turkish friendship sculpture in the eastern city of Kars is but one of his many interventions in public life. His government’s support for neoliberal economic policies had spurred many confrontations with the labor unions. His attempts to regulate the personal lives of Turks include his failed attempt to ban abortion, his recent restrictions on the purchase and sale of alcohol, and periodic moralizing lectures on proper public behavior. Just this past Sunday he declared that he favors restrictions on couples’ intimate behavior in public places; just for good measure, he added that he considers anyone who drinks alcohol to be an alcoholic. Such statements look especially ominous in light of his recently announced plans to move Turkey toward a presidential republic (in which he would presumably hold the highest office).

Among the protestors, the one opposition group conspicuous by its absence is the Kurds. While it is true that thousands of Kurdish politicians remain in jail and that some questions about Erdogan’s policies towards the Kurds remain, the overwhelming majority of the Kurds support the current peace process and have hesitated to join the protests for fear of derailing it. 

Nonetheless, though the protests clearly demonstrate the breadth and depth of active opposition to the prime minister, Erdogan has so far shown little sign of acknowledging their concerns about his high-handed rule. His description of the protesters as "bandits" (and his denunciation of Twitter as a "disease") coupled with his steadfast refusal to back off the controversial development plans for Taksim Square that sparked the protests, all suggest that the confrontation will continue.

Yet there are also growing signs of a split within Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. President Abdullah Gül surprised many when he declared that the protestors’ "message has been received." Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has apologized for "excessive violence" by the police, while Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbas has distanced himself from the plans to build a shopping mall in Taksim. The cleric Fethullah Gulen, widely seen as one of the most powerful religious leaders in the country, has come out publicly against the use of excessive force by the police against protesters.

So there are grounds for arguing that the protests have succeeded in imposing new constraints on Erdogan’s top-down efforts to define the country in his own image. The rise of dissenting voices in the AKP shows that the members of his own party are responding to public pressure for change — yet more evidence that the past eight days have brought significant gains to the Turkish democracy. For the first time ever, people are standing up in large numbers to demand democratic accountability from their elected leaders. For the first time ever, the citizens of Ankara are staging mass public demonstrations calling for the resignation of a prime minister within just a few blocks of the homes of the country’s leaders. For the first time ever, people around the country are coming together to protect their cities from the unrestrained greed of urban developers and their government cronies. For the first time ever, both young and old are joining forces to assert their rights as citizens and standing their ground despite police brutality.

Despite his authoritarian instincts, Erdogan is not Bashar al-Assad of Syria or Qaddafi of Libya. The political system in today’s Turkey does not allow him to assume dictatorial powers. Unlike the Egyptians demanding the most basic of rights from Mubarak the tyrant, Turks are defending their rights as citizens of a democracy. Taksim is not Tahrir. And that is why we now have good reasons for optimism about the future of Turkish democracy.

Firat Demir teaches in the Department of Economics at the University of Oklahoma.

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