June 5, 2013

Turkey’s unique form of democracy has reached a defining moment

A quiet protest by a handful of environmentalists has exploded into a nationwide outcry by the half of Turkey’s electorate that did not vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). These protestors transcend class and party lines, and even include many AKP supporters. They are united by their rejection of what they see as Prime Minister Erdogan’s intrusion into their private lives through restrictions on alcohol sales and public kissing. In addition, many protestors have deeper suspicions that the prime minister is waging ideological warfare by attempting to impose Islamist social norms on Turkey’s secular society.

A quiet protest by a handful of environmentalists has exploded into a nationwide outcry by the half of Turkey’s electorate that did not vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). These protestors transcend class and party lines, and even include many AKP supporters. They are united by their rejection of what they see as Prime Minister Erdogan’s intrusion into their private lives through restrictions on alcohol sales and public kissing. In addition, many protestors have deeper suspicions that the prime minister is waging ideological warfare by attempting to impose Islamist social norms on Turkey’s secular society.

Prime Minister Erdogan has thus far decided to push a hard line, relying on his superior political strength and the levers of state power to thwart opposition protests. This approach reflects the prime minister’s vision of democracy as a winner-take-all gambit in which his opposition – politically divided and weak – can be ignored until and unless they defeat him and his AKP at the ballot box.

But, Erdogan’s key partners within the AKP are now indicating they do not share the prime minister’s illiberal interpretation of Turkish democracy. On June 1, President Abdullah Gul called the level of tension in Turkey “worrisome” and urged all parties to behave reasonably; on June 4, after meeting with President Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized for the excessive use of force.

Absent deaths among protesters or widespread work stoppages, Prime Minister Erdogan could probably ride out the protests, given the reservoir of political strength he still enjoys. But, at least two protestors have died since June 3, and Turkey’s largest labor union launched a two-day strike on June 4. If notoriously hard-working Turks now stay away from their jobs for a prolonged period, the prime minister will enter more dangerous waters.

For now, Prime Minister Erdogan still seems intent on escalating tension. His June 2 TV interview enflamed many who had remained on the sidelines, catalyzing them to take to the streets. Erdogan’s decision to proceed with his trip to North Africa on June 3 poured further fuel on the fire, suggesting he had nothing but disdain for the protestors rallying across the entire country.

This all suggests that despite years of free and fair elections and the most developed democratic culture in the Middle East outside of Israel, the values of classical liberalism that form democracy’s foundation are still taking root in Turkey. This is evident in Prime Minister Erdogan’s refusal to acknowledge any legitimacy to the protestors’ complaints. It is also evident in the opposition’s failure to organize itself into a potent political force that can mount a serious electoral challenge to the ruling AKP. Instead, the protestors default to demanding Erdogan’s resignation. A major part of the protestors’ problem is that they lack a leader who can harness their discontent into political action. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, Republican Party (CHP), remains virtually invisible in both Turkish and international media. On the other hand, the protesters have shown sufficient coherence to stem violence by radical provocateurs who inevitably try to hijack large-scale protests in any country. Perhaps Kilicdaroglu and the CHP will now muster sufficient courage and organizational skill to harness protestors’ discontent into a rejuvenated political movement.

Geopolitically, the stakes are also high. The Prime Minister’s credibility as an international leader on Syria is in jeopardy, as his tough crackdown has cleared the way for Assad to claim (absurdly) that his regime is no worse than Erdogan’s government.

Additionally, as the violent response to the protests weakens Prime Minister Erdogan’s political authority at home, Erdogan has also jeopardized his key political gambit: reconciling the Turkish state with Turkey’s Kurdish population in exchange for a constitutional amendment that would transform Turkey into a presidential political system (with Erdogan becoming president in 2014). If this Kurdish peace effort unravels, Ankara’s dramatic strategic shift to support energy exports from the Kurdish Region of Iraq to Turkey (and the EU) might not happen. At the same time, Kurdish nationalism could gain new momentum in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, unleashing centrifugal political forces that neither Ankara, nor Washington, nor any NATO Ally wishes to see.

The impact of the protests on U.S.-Turkey relations remains undefined. If the above negative international scenarios are realized, Turkey’s status as a key U.S. partner in managing problems in the Middle East will diminish. And, if Erdogan continues to tarnish his democratic credentials in Washington, Turkey’s strategic significance as a secular state with a Muslim-majority population that can inspire reformers in the broader Middle East will also fade.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Erdogan still holds all the key cards. Hopefully, he will step back from the brink and demonstrate his (reluctant) recognition that in a democracy, the national leader must lead not only his supporters, but also his opponents, whose numbers have surely swelled in recent days. Such a softening of the prime minister’s approach would mark a major victory for Turkey’s peculiar form of democracy. But, at the moment, this optimistic outcome does not appear likely.

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