How Not to Win Friends and Influence the Turkish People

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.


Democracy Lab

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.