The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government failed miserably in managing what was originally a small-scale and peaceful sit-in protest against a face-lift project for a pedestrian walkway in Taksim, one of İstanbul’s landmark centers. The harsh reaction of the government towards protestors and excessive use of force by the police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds, has turned the small, green protest movement into nationwide rallies drawing support from all walks of life. A defiant Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unfortunately threw more fuel on the fire by initially ridiculing protestors and dismissing legitimate demands of the people, who wanted no more than a hearing by city officials before a decision was made on what to do on a small green plot in Taksim Square.
The terrible crisis mismanagement by the government and ensuing disarray in efforts to contain the fallout has escalated the situation, exposing the key vulnerability in the governance of the country: The lack of effective communication and consultation against a background of weakening transparency and accountability in Turkey have made the nation susceptible to provocations and prone to angry outbursts. The consolidation of state power in the hands of the AK Party leadership — to a great extent, politicized bureaucracy and relentless attempts to monopolize almost every line item in the nation’s agenda — have contributed to the growing, deep resentment towards the AK Party. The harsh language and sharp tone used by the outspoken Erdoğan have unnecessarily polarized society. The absence of effective checks and balances, with opposition parties in tatters and Parliament relegated to almost a rubberstamp-type assembly at the wishes of the governing party, has exacerbated the situation further.
Having said that, however, I do not think Erdoğan will be a lame duck prime minister in the aftermath of the protests because he still enjoys a comfortable popularity in the country, according to various public surveys. The lack of formidable opposition to challenge his ruling AK Party government is his best defense in weathering the wave of criticism and nationwide protests. The opposition parties are in disarray, and they cannot mount a successful campaign to win the hearts and minds of people to defeat the AK Party government. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is seen by many as an ambulance-chasing attorney who wants nothing more than to exploit the protests for its own political gains. Otherwise, how do we explain the behavior of the CHP city council members who signed on to this construction project in Taksim? The CHP needs to come up with appealing political, social and economic projects to garner support from the masses in Turkey if it really wants to be a credible alternative to the AK Party. However, old habits die hard and the CHP seems to have been investing its precious political capital in an ideological portfolio that has no promise of a significant return in the future.
Erdoğan’s image was greatly helped by marginal and violent groups that use every opportunity, including this peaceful green protest movement, to turn events violent with vandalism; arson; destruction of public and private properties; and physical attacks against police officers, reporters and even Muslim women who cover their heads. The video footage on Turkish television showing masked people throwing fire-bombs at cars and shattering windows of shops and banks scare people who may have their own reasons to dislike the government’s position on a number of issues. Since public order, safety and security is the prevailing concern for most people, they won’t endorse these rallies that have turned to violence. The anarchy and chaos that wreaked havoc in the back alleys leading to Taksim and in other neighborhoods by these marginal groups were the best defense that could have rushed to the aid of the beleaguered prime minister. Conservative, nationalist and liberal groups that lent their support to protests at the outset have quickly dropped their endorsement after events devolved into violence and got out of hand.
There is no doubt that Erdoğan is a savvy political figure who does not shy away from confrontation and a political fight. He will try to turn what seems to be a defeat for the government into a new opportunity for himself and for the party. The hijacking of the peaceful protest by violent marginal groups has already given him the necessary cover to go on bashing the opposition parties while mobilizing his supporters. The damage assessment of public and private properties he gave in a TV interview on Sunday was a smart move to win back some of the people who supported the protests. Turkish people are generally afraid of violent street demonstrations, no matter how innocent and lofty the goals behind them claim to be, because of heavy historical baggage. In the past, similar protest rallies were easily exploited by military and other illicit, shadowy groups to ferment civil unrest in an effort to advance their undemocratic agenda against elected governments in the past.
As a result, the government will most likely absorb this damage and may even come back stronger than before if it starts taking seriously the legitimate concerns and grievances voiced by different interest groups in this country. Erdoğan may seize the crisis as an opportunity to revitalize the broad coalition that carried him into power for three elections in the last decade. But he will have to revisit the AK Party’s relations with the support groups that he succeeded in alienating when he refused to pay attention to their concerns after the 2011 elections. Instead of paying lip service to much-needed democratic reforms, the government should address the country’s democratic deficit that sits at the core of all problems the nation faces today, including Kurdish and Alevi demands. Decentralization, rather than the consolidation of power, must be advanced by yielding more powers to local administrations. Local ownership is important, and if the urban renewal project had been consulted with local residents in Taksim before the contractor started excavating the site, we would probably not have witnessed this protest movement.
I am not sure that Erdoğan will be able to refrain from using bitter rhetoric to keep tension from escalating in the country, which has already been polarized to a great extent. He has used brinkmanship policy successfully in the past and will not shy away from ratcheting up tension yet another notch just to mobilize his own troops. His remarks on Sunday stating that the AK Party can easily rally a million people against the tens of thousands the opposition was able to muster in protest rallies was, in fact, a signal of his line of thinking in this regard. Those who think Erdoğan was cornered by protest events last week are merely dreaming that this will lead to the defeat of the AK Party in the next elections. The only way to beat the AK Party and chip away at its popular support is to compete with it on solid social, economic and political programs.
In the lead-up to parliamentary elections in 2007, there were mass protest rallies held across the country against the government, which pulled hundreds of thousands of people to streets. It later turned out that the Ergenekon terror network was, in fact, manipulating the events — with finances coming from some business interest groups as well as from the discretionary funds of the Turkish military. The specter of harsh rhetoric adopted by rally organizers and the military’s open endorsement of the opposition has actually played into the hands of the AK Party, which increased its percentage of votes from 34 percent in 2002 to 47 percent in the 2007 elections. The CHP must have sensed the danger this time around and that is why it canceled its own rally in the Kadıköy district in İstanbul. When Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, attended a mass gathering on Saturday in Taksim, there were no party flags or vehicles indicating that the CHP officially endorsed the rally there.
By the way, those who describe protest rallies as the “Turkish Spring” do not know about the decades-long Turkish democratic transformation. Just as it is wrong to describe protest rallies in Madrid, New York, London, Paris or Tel Aviv in the last couple of years as a “Spring,” it is also wrong to describe recent events in Turkey as one. Turkey is a country governed by rule of law, fundamental human rights and democracy, albeit with many shortcomings. The military was pushed back to its barracks and civilian supremacy over the army was asserted. The judiciary was emancipated from the grips of archaic ideology of the state in a 2010 public referendum. The social and economic indicators are much better today than a decade ago, and they stand in sharp contrast to many countries undergoing economic crisis in Europe. There is no turning back, even if the AK Party tries its best to backtrack on democratic gains and to tilt toward authoritarian tendencies. That is the lesson the AK Party and Erdoğan need to draw from these recent protests.