One has to distinguish between two kinds of protests that emerged from the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul, Turkey: an innocent and legitimate one that took place in the early days of the protests, and a transmogrified version of the latter into a social engineering project to bring down the democratically elected and widely popular government of the AKP, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. The latter had been attempted numerous times within the decade-long rule of the AKP.
As an excuse for the continued protests, some charge Erdogan with becoming increasingly authoritarian by citing the recent alcohol restriction law, the attempted abortion law etc. in Turkey. The curious thing is, similar laws and discussions are common in some Western countries.
Some brazenly go even as far as likening him to Hosni Mubarak, Gaddafi, or al-Assad. The latter were the unelected leaders of despotic regimes. Erdogan has been a legitimately elected leader for three consecutive times, each time winning the elections with a landslide victory. Obviously there is something this guy and his cabinet must be doing increasingly well that resonates with the majority of the Turkish people for the last decade.
The US republican senator John McCain, for example, said recently that Erdogan is acting like a “dictator.” The Economist magazine published an article the other day tacitly blaming Erdogan to behave like a sultan. This is a magazine that overtly pushes for a government change in Turkey since the last couple of years. Before the 2011 elections, for example, the Economist encouraged Turkish people to vote for the main opposition party instead of the AKP, which is an Islamically conservative democratic party.
Why is it that the West is not even-handed vis-a-vis the AKP? I think one important reason is Islamophobia .. There is so much Islamophobia in the Western media that even the most reasonable person can be biased against anything Islamic.
The West needs to distinguish between extremist and ordinary Muslims. If they approach anything Islamic with the same, overtly or covertly, phobia and one-sidedness then I am afraid this will only exacerbate the situation and further the already-existing friction between the West and the Muslim world.
Erdogan certainly has some lessons to learn from the recent protests: to show more understanding toward the way of life and sensitivities of those who don’t support him, to tone down his sometimes harsh rhetoric, and to really weigh his cabinets’ giant projects well from environmental and sustainability perspective, and have them thoroughly thrashed out in public before his government goes ahead with them.
Erdogan is no ordinary politician: he is very ambitious, industrious, forthright, and yes sometimes a bit harsh and intractable. He is an overachiever. People usually don’t realize that it is this set of characters that makes him so successful in effecting real tangible success in the political arena, and an awful lot of admirers and some haters. A March 2013 poll done by Pew Research Center in Turkey shows that 62% of the participants viewed him favorably. I aver that his story is a daring political success story that might even be taught at political institutions and financial schools some day.
Erdogan’s cabinet made unprecedented reforms in Turkey within the last decade: democratic, political, and economic reforms. Some of these can be briefly stated as follows:
Democratic reforms that enabled a much larger segment of the Turkish society to have a say in the governance of their country; reforms that brought about the recognition of the reality of a Kurdish problem in Turkey; reforms that lifted the ban on the speaking of the Kurdish language and establishment of TV channels broadcasting in Kurdish.
Political reforms that made it virtually impossible to do coup d’etats that were all too common in the pre-AKP days, political reforms that are close to resolving the momentous Kurdish problem. The AKP has recently pulled off a very important ceasefire with the PKK, the leading Kurdish guerilla group in Turkey. The latter is a very high-stake political risk Erdogan overtook, and arguably no other political figure can and will be able to do in the foreseeable future of the Turkish political landscape.
Economic reforms that oversaw almost quadrupling of the per capita income, many-fold increase of Turkish exports, total payoff of the debt to IMF, reduction of inflation from chronic two digit numbers to a single digit number, a mind-boggling infrastructure development such as double-lane roads, improved hospitals and schools, and on and on.
The recent protests in Turkey might be a red herring to most Westerners as they occur during the so-called Arab Spring, where truly oppressed people have been rising up to their unelected, cruel and corrupt dictators. The Gezi Park protests must be viewed against the backdrop of the recent political history of Turkey. Confusing the Turkish case with the Arab Spring case, and comparing Erdogan with the ruthless and unscrupulous dictators of the relevant Arab countries is the ultimate insult to intellectual fairness and to the tens of thousands of people, a lot of them women and children, who have been killed and tortured till this day by the dictators of those countries.
The now a decade-long rule of the AKP, starting in the 2002 general elections, marks a watershed in the recent history of Turkey. Turkey has witnessed a class struggle, a local political cold war between the elite guard of the militarist secularist regime and the hitherto oppressed and silenced conservative-religious majority. The latter were prevented from occupying high government, military, and bureaucratic offices: their daughters were prevented from attending higher education institutions; their sons prevented from rising up in the chain of command in the military; their democratically elected politicians harassed and sometimes executed, and their parties routinely shut down. These people waited patiently. Then came a not-so-unexpected or uncommon financial meltdown in 2001, where Turkish economy went virtually bankrupt overnight. Enter Erdogan and his friends to the Turkish political scene in earnest in 2002, touching off the recent Turkish “revolution.”
The deep secularist establishment tried every trick they could find to stop the inevitable: they used their bureaucratic tentacles to stop the AKP, they attempted many coups d’etat; but it was to no avail. Then in 2007, it occurred to them to organize countrywide protests (the so-called Cumhuriyet Mitingleri, i.e., the Republic Protests) with the tacit aim of instigating a coup, as Ergenekon trials revealed later on, portraying themselves in the process to the world as a grassroots movement. It all failed.
Now without taking away anything from the legitimacy of the early peaceful days of the Gezi Park protests, I venture to say that the protestors of the ongoing and violent protests are trying to accomplish what the Republic Protests attempted to do but couldn’t, except in a violent way a la the Arab Spring: to bring down a legitimately elected and still widely supported government. These extended and violent protests/riots should be viewed in that light, and not as an uprising of an oppressed people in the sense of the oppression of the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria.
The Taksim Square protestors should understand that it is unnatural of them to expect an outcome similar to what happened in some of the above Arab countries as a result of the uprisings. This would be a big political blunder. Turkey is a democratic country where many democratic channels are available for political and civil action. If the opposition did their job properly with tangible, consistent and convincing policy-making, then they probably would not have had to go to the streets to protests some of the policies of Erdogan. Some of these issues and “problematic” plans would have been dealt with before they took effect or realized.
It is time for them and their parties’ leaders to look at themselves in the mirror and get the lesson they should get from these protests: They have done very poorly in the legitimate political arena. The main opposition party in Turkey, CHP, the Republican People’s Party, could not put together any viable set of policies that could counter the AKP advance for three consecutive elections. All they did during the last decade was to oppose by default to any proposal the AKP put forward, and every now and then call for military intervention.
The so-called secularist segment of the Turkish society, i.e., the “elite guard” of the Kemalist regime, boasts itself to be well educated and modern, and usually they look down on the AKP base as being not as educated and smart. Isn’t it past time for them to ask themselves how come in spite of their “education” and “modernity,” they seem absolutely incapable of establishing a viable democratic party with a well-thought-out set of plans and projects that will effectively compete with the policies of the AKP and be convincing to everyday people?
Dr. Serkan Zorba is associate professor of physics at Whittier College, CA, USA. He is originally from Turkey. His web site is www.serkanzorba.com.