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In early May, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — flush with a decade of electoral triumphs and a track record of economic growth dwarfing that of the European Union he once vowed to join — had the luxury of being magnanimous.

The governor of Tokyo, Istanbul’s rival in the competition to host the 2020 Olympics, had suggested that Muslim countries were too factious and backward for the Games. “The only thing they share in common is Allah,” he said. But Erdoğan, leader of the party that pioneered a ruling formula of neoliberal economic policy wed to Islamist-inflected pledges of democratization, took no visible umbrage. Rather, with Shinzo Abe visiting Ankara to sign a nuclear power plant deal on May 3, the Turkish premier responded in jest. “You’ve hosted the Games before,” he told his Japanese counterpart at a press conference. “Withdraw your bid so we can host them once.”

Now, with protesters in dozens of Turkish cities rallying against him, Erdoğan’s ambitions to extend his political powers in ways that would render him the most decisive leader in the history of the country look threatened, if not doomed.

Illiberal Turn

The shadow Erdoğan casts over these protests, which originated over plans to raze a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square as part of an urban renewal project including significant commercial development, hints at both the reach and the limitations of the country’s most dramatic popular movement in decades. To be sure, the protests are “about” Erdoğan: The demand for his resignation is one of the few slogans acceptable to the entire range of demonstrators, from the far left to the various stripes of hard-core nationalist on the right. The graffiti in the park — where numbers expanded exponentially in response to the brutality of police efforts to clear a small protest camp on May 31 — that focus on the prime minister offer a space where people who agree on very little can regard one another warily. “You’re not ‘elected’; you were shat out” (“Seçilmiş değil, sıçılmışsın”), proclaimed one spray-painted (and, in Turkish, punning) couplet that emerged in the first week of June, when those clutching flags bearing the image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, came face to face with Kurds unfurling portraits of erstwhile separatist leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Erdoğan’s personal intemperance — his penchant for vindictive outbursts, his stern prescription that Turkish couples should have at least three children — is central to these expressions of distaste. It tracks closely with the grand ambition of the infrastructure projects his government envisions for Istanbul, a city already transformed by internal migration over the last three decades. The weeks before the initial Taksim protest saw the award of a tender worth $29 billion to build a third Istanbul airport, and a ceremony marking the beginning of work on a third bridge across the Bosphorus, the strait bisecting the city and linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Building the new span will require cutting down swaths of fast-disappearing forest; the finished product is to bear the name of Selim the Grim, a sixteenth-century Ottoman sultan renowned for waging war on Alevis, a significant religious minority in this mostly Sunni Muslim country. Other salient projects include a mosque larger than any in the city, atop a hill crowning its Asian shore, and a canal carved alongside the Bosphorus, which the prime minister has dubbed his “mad project,” in celebration of the audacity of gouging a counterpart to Panama and Suez near the legendary waterway. On May 31, the day the protests began, local authorities announced that a pier for ferries bearing commuters across the Bosphorus had been sold to a nearby hotel, which itself occupies the site of a demolished historic building.

The demonstrations against Erdoğan tie objections to his authoritarian streak, long on display in internal party politics, to resentment of his encroachments on personal liberties, in line with the conservative mores of a politician who learned the ropes in the less savvy Islamist parties that preceded his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Critics point to legislation newly rammed through Parliament that limits sales of alcohol in shops, and a previously mooted abortion ban, which failed. Some — including nationalists for whom the AKP’s increasingly conservative social agenda signals a threat to the militantly secular legacy of Atatürk — maintain that the agenda of democratization that the party espoused early in its tenure was always a project to eliminate checks on its power.

As evidence, they point to the diminution of the military’s authority. This process originated in political reforms spurred by Turkey’s EU accession bid, such as those transforming and hobbling the National Security Council, a body in existence since the 1980 coup. Through the Council the military expressed its will on matters of national security, broadly defined, and civilian politicians endorsed it. The whittling-down of military authority accelerated dramatically in 2007, when the AKP nominated founding member Abdullah Gül to succeed the outgoing president, who had blocked AKP-backed legislation and warned of the risk of Islamization in state institutions. Gül’s nomination prompted the military to warn it might intervene to preserve the country’s secular foundations. The threat, and a court decision scrapping an initial round of parliamentary voting on Gül’s candidacy, brought early elections that returned an even larger AKP plurality — 47 percent of the vote. That year also saw the beginning of judicial probes into alleged plots to foment political violence and precipitate another coup. These investigations have culminated in the trials of retired and serving senior officers under myriad indictments centered on such conspiracies; critics argue that the trials, marked by pointed claims of faked evidence, illustrate a slide toward autocracy, renewed periodically and ritually with recourse to the ballot box.

Detention of journalists, and the generally servile conduct of a local media whose patrons fear sanction after one of their number lost a high-profile battle with Erdoğan’s government, only enhances the sense of a distinctly illiberal turn in the country’s politics. The jailing over the last four years of several thousand Kurdish activists alleged to comprise a wing of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sometimes comes up in this connection, though it is a point on which Erdoğan’s supporters and his critics on lifestyle grounds are often united in silence.

Occupy Gezi

The heavy-handed attempt to scatter the initial protest in Taksim’s Gezi park — police stormed the area before dawn, laid down carpets of tear gas and destroyed demonstrators’ tents — transformed it, and spread it beyond Istanbul and well outside the core of organizers within the city. The park, ironically enough, was not widely used prior to the protests. The resort to police brutality to enforce the razing of the camp gave a stake in Gezi’s fate to people who would ordinarily never converge on a single issue. Suddenly, the appropriation of public space, under the rubric of the AKP’s program of “urban transformation,” resonated broadly and became shorthand for diverse grievances with the party. Protests against the expropriation of homes in Tarlabaşı, a low-income district near Taksim where an upmarket residential development is planned, were by contrast much more narrowly based, and did not extend far beyond progressive activist circles.

Erdoğan dismissed the Gezi grievances out of hand, disparaged the protesters as “looters” and “vandals,” and invoked his own mass of supporters. Meanwhile, he insisted that the project would go ahead. Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç, filling in for Erdoğan during a previously planned trip to North Africa, met with a delegation of protest organizers and acknowledged the possibility of legitimate objections to development projects on environmental grounds, without addressing more specific demands associated with the protests. These have ranged from pleas for guarantees that the park will be preserved to calls for a ban on the tear gas canisters fired at protesters. Istanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbaş, has played down the suggestion that a shopping mall will take the park’s place, though the prime minister (himself a former mayor of the city) has sworn there will be no retreat from the plan to rebuild the area around a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks. AKP officials from top to bottom consistently demand an immediate end to the protests.

Though police wielding tear gas and water cannons continue to confront protesters elsewhere in Turkey and Istanbul, the park itself is free of police, as it has been since demonstrations spread following the initial raid. In the park’s current atmosphere of genial political street theater, and the novelty of mixing among people who might not ordinarily look one another in the eye, questions of broad political strategy seem deferred, out of necessity.

There is, to begin with, no electoral remedy for what ails the protesters. The AKP has for now ruled out holding general elections ahead of their scheduled date in 2015, following local and presidential elections in 2014; the main parliamentary opposition, which drew about half as many votes as the AKP in 2011, has effectively admitted it has no mandate arising from protests and canceled rallies that coincided with the crackdown against them. Neither the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — a relic of the country’s decades of single-party rule and the self-styled steward of Atatürk’s secularist inheritance — nor the far-right chauvinist Nationalist Action Party has a platform extending beyond opposition to the AKP. The Islamist party’s organizational capacity remains of a different order of magnitude than anything any other political force will be able to muster in the foreseeable future.

Erdoğan, more than anyone, will have been aware of this reality as he periodically accused the CHP of standing behind the protests. His opponents in the streets, he claimed, were also targeting a renewed effort to broker an end to conflict with the Kurds, and it is there that hints as to the course of events in the coming weeks and months may be found.

A Kurdish Connection

The peace process entails an unprecedented public engagement with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has endorsed the principle of settling the Kurdish question within Turkey’s borders and called on the group’s fighters to withdraw to northern Iraq. It is widely assumed that the process — there has been no official account of what precisely is on the table — would acknowledge long-standing demands for constitutional change to write Kurds and the Kurdish language into a document that, at present, equates citizenship with Turkish ethnicity.

A previous flirtation with a negotiated path out of conflict with the Kurds foundered in 2009, when the government was stung by nationalist backlash over scenes of PKK members being greeted as heroes in the largely Kurdish southeast as they returned from northern Iraq. That initiative never publicly broached the prospect of an amnesty for PKK members or substantive alteration of the constitutional clauses defining citizenship. Instead, the government, mindful of objections on nationalist grounds from its parliamentary opposition, confined itself to steps that many Kurds regard as empty gestures. These measures include the launch of Kurdish-language broadcasting on a state outlet now closely identified with the AKP, and permitting limited instruction of Kurdish as an elective subject — not, as many Kurds demand, as a language of instruction.

Erdoğan’s calculus of utility on the matter of Kurdish rights, and taste for peacemaking, is widely believed to have shifted in accordance with his own ambitions toward the presidency of the country. That office is to be awarded by popular vote for the first time in 2014. Under current party rules, Erdoğan could not serve again as prime minister when the government’s term expires in 2015. He has floated the idea of a constitutional amendment to enhance the powers of the presidency; a prevalent reading of the parliamentary arithmetic holds that his ally in this project would be the MPs affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who would in turn have their own constitutional demands fulfilled.

The prospects of such a quid pro quo may already have slipped beyond reach for Erdoğan, however, independently of the fate of the Occupy Gezi and companion protests. Neither precedent — his party floated trial balloons on the constitutional definition of citizenship following a crushing win at the polls in 2007, but never submitted a draft to Parliament — nor desultory work in committee suggest bold moves on the constitution before local elections scheduled for March. Lingering hopes of progress on that score, and reluctance to undermine a peace process before it runs its course, have likely secured quiet from the BDP on the protests. But a series of impending elections make meaningful efforts to take up the constitutional question of citizenship and ethnicity even less likely than before. Facing elections, the government is likely to mollify rather than challenge the nationalist element of its base. In the absence of any clear political dividend, Kurds are unlikely to be Erdoğan’s kingmakers.

Erdoğan’s deputy Arınç has thanked the BDP for not mobilizing its strength during the protests, though Kurds have taken part in large numbers in Istanbul and displays of Öcalan’s image have inspired anger among nationalists who have taken to the streets against Erdoğan. That rancor has an echo in some liberal circles, where official Kurdish neutrality over the protests is read as a betrayal after years of support for their campaign for basic rights. The hard feelings are met with coolness about the protests, and the outcry over police violence, from some Kurds, who note that liberal enthusiasm for their predicament was very limited in the 1990s, when about a million Kurds were displaced from the southeast in a counterinsurgency campaign synonymous with gross abuses of human rights. Kurds are not themselves a politically homogeneous bloc. But were a visibly Kurdish subsection of opposition (whether affiliated with the BDP or not) to throw itself behind the protests, the move would almost certainly alienate a wide stratum of nationalists, and fragment what is now a coalition with only the weakest of inter-connections. At the same time, the political mobilization of Kurds in NGOs and the like — generally with little hope of influence through electoral politics per se — remains one of the models that may draw the attention of activists seeking to extend the moment. The role of Kurds will be among the thorniest of questions for any broad movement of popular, rather than partisan, opposition.

What that movement could look like remains unclear. The former mayor Erdoğan has been at pains to point out the many precedents in his city for the episode of urban transformation that has so galvanized his political foes. The response to this one, however, is novel. The fact that the apparent progress of plans to remake Istanbul in a ruler’s image has produced a strange, unsteady mass of dissent may point toward a future basis for more effective opposition.

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CORRECTION: The original version of this article said that the AKP won 47 percent of the seats in Parliament in the 2007 elections. It was 47 percent of the vote. We regret the error.

How to cite this article:

Joseph Logan "In Search of the Building Blocks of Opposition in Turkey," Middle East Report Online, June 10, 2013.
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