What’s Happening In Turkey?

June 1, 2013 12:47 p.m.

As some longtime readers know, I’m a turkophile. So I’ve been extremely eager to get a grip on just what’s going on there over the last 48 hours (quick version: massive street protests in Istanbul, perhaps spreading to other parts of the country). Unlike some other issues, this is a topic I know just enough about to know just how much I don’t know. So I’m very cautious.

I spoke to a friend of mine with deep experience in the country who told me that her real question was whether the protests could maintain their momentum into a second day. And just checking in now after a day mainly out of touch with the news it seems like they very much have. I’ve seen multiple news reports of arrests numbering roughly 1000 with protests now spreading well-beyond Istanbul.

For those who are new to this topic, let me try to give a very general explanation of the context of what’s happening here. Again, very general, if you’re familiar with Turkish history I’ll cover a lot of really basic and obvious ground.After World War I, for roughly eighty years, Turkey lived under various permutations of the Kemalist Republic. This was a western-oriented, nationalist and above all else secular republic. It was also democratic, after a fashion. The military played what might be called a custodial role in the country’s politics – allowing elections and democratic politics as long as things operated within pretty clear red lines. The military pressured and even overthrew civilian governments on multiple occasions. They even hanged a Prime Minister after a coup in 1960.

The changes pushed through by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal (“Ataturk”) are some mix of shocking and magnificent. Just to give one example, one of his reforms was to change the country’s alphabet: they used to use Arabic script, now they use Roman script. Think about that for a moment … And that was combined with a vast pruning and revision of the entire language.

This status quo left many tensions unresolved, to put it mildly, one of the key ones being the role of Islam. The Turkish elite and military (heavily overlapping) was resolutely secular. But this was not so clearly true of the population at large, or at least not large segments of it. The country had its first elected Islamist Prime Minister in the 90s who was pushed aside in what might be termed a very soft military coup. No death or arrests. Just, he was out.

This left even more bare and perhaps unsustainable a basic contradiction that has always been at the heart of post-Ottoman Turkey: It’s secularism was simply not compatible with its full pretensions to democracy or republican rule.

So how to allow a full or really even any expression of Islamic politics in the country’s political life while also securing the secularism of the state itself and its democratic culture? This was the experiment Turkey embarked upon roughly a decade ago when first the party of current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and eventually Erdogan himself formally came to power.

Erdogan, interestingly, even had if not the support, the tacit and very cautious accommodation of Turkish liberals who agreed that the country could not be really democratic while it was dominated by the army and maintained a repressive secularism. The early years of Erdogan’s rule included a big push to dismantle many of the anti-democratic parts of the Turkish state to ‘bring it up to code’ for entry into the European Union, something that did not happen.

By many measures the experiment has been a wild success. Erdogan and his party have been elected by big margins in successive elections. The economy has flourished. And the state wasn’t flipped into some Turkish version of Iran’s Islamic Republic.

But after a decade, Erdogan’s rule has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn. And there have been more and more instances of the state imposing Islamist mores – things like restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, provocative sexuality and so forth.

On a separate front, Erdogan seems to have broken the back of the military’s political power. Vast numbers of high-ranking military officers are now on trial or awaiting trial for conspiring the overthrow the government. I’ve never had a clear enough sense of how valid these accusations are. Erdogan clearly wanted to neuter the military politically. But the military also has a lengthy history of overthrowing Turkish governments. It’s way, way beyond my knowledge to even guess what the truth of that is.

I don’t follow Turkish politics as closely as I used to. And I was never remotely an expert on them. But these days, watching from more of a distance, few people seem to discount a genuinely authoritarian turn in Erdogan’s governance. And his moves against the old secular order – in the social if not the political realm – seem to have hit a straw breaking the camel’s back moment with the country’s urban and more secular voters, perhaps even some more moderate religious voters. And other groups – hyper-nationalists, ethnic and religious minorities – seem to be piling on too, despite having very disparate gripes with the current government.

The current protests began over a park redevelopment. But that spark seems to have been the catalyst to bring this growing discontent to the fore. Lest I give you the wrong impression, Erdogan remains really, really popular at least with 50%+ of the population. It’s hard for me to see how he isn’t the most powerful and dominant figure in Turkish politics and society since Ataturk himself died 75 years ago. One way to look at the current situation is that Erdogan has had the support of a clear if not overwhelming majority of the country. But that leaves a big slice of the population which is not on board with his vision of Turkey’s future. And after ten years, democratically empowered by that 50%+, he’s increasingly imposing his party’s vision on the rest of the country, with less and less concern for what that very big minority of the country thinks about it.

I was talking with my friend who’s way more plugged in about all things Turkish and her take was that it could either subside and just be a blip or if it intensified could become a very big deal indeed.

Here’s a note she sent me this morning …

Rumors flying about Internet cuts and additional cops being flown in from around the country. (Turkish police are a national, not local force – there are very few powers devolved to local authorities, which is why this protest targets the PM and the government-appointed governor of Istanbul province, not the elected mayor of the city.) People were up all night demonstrating in the traditional pot-banging in the streets that Turks love when they’re upset about something. This protest feels different than many others, though – it’s more general.

Last night an administrative court stayed the demolition order on the park, which could be expected to slow some of the protests, but now they’ve taken off in many neighborhoods of the city (some miles away from Taksim) and across the country. The main opposition party, the CHP, is leading a huge march to Taksim today, giving a distinctly partisan feel to what had been a cross-society protest. I think allowing that CHP protest march was strategically smart for the government, because it allows the govt to paint this as a marginal political movement rather than the much larger event it seems to be. (The CHP consistently draws around 24% of the vote, whereas the AKP gets 50% or better. The CHP is a party riven with its own internal problems; one side is staunch Kemalist while the other is trying to move the party in the direction of a European social democratic party. Usually CHP endeavors end up being more of a circular firing squad than an actual movement, sadly… Turkey desperately needs a strong opposition party to the AKP.)

A lot of people in the CHP and in the MHP, the smaller, ultra-nationalist opposition party (usually polls around 8-12%), are really upset with the AKP for making a peace deal with the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan, and I think they’re bandwagoning on to this anti-government protest to demonstrate against the AKP’s other policies (certainly including its most recent round of restrictions on alcohol sales and advertising). The Kurdish-affiliated opposition party, the BDP, has been really cautious in participating in the protests – certain MPs who show up at any protest were there, but they were there in their personal capacity and not carrying BDP banners or insignia. They don’t want to throw off the negotiations, and they don’t want to offend the other groups by being overtly Kurdish nationalists. I hear there are small demonstrations going on in Diyarbakır, the Kurdish cultural in the Southeast, but very meek ones.

Turkish TV has mostly ignored the protests, in what we could probably call prudent self-censorship. (I seriously doubt that anyone in the government actually told the stations not to cover the protests, but after the last five years of rising political and judicial attacks against journalists and mass media firms, very few TV channels are very daring.)

It’s not unusual for the Turkish police to go overboard in trying to suppress a protest. The large-scale mobilization of the Istanbul population, though, is unusual. I don’t remember anything this large happening in recent years. If this continues like it did yesterday, then it’s a Big Thing that will have further ramifications, but if people start trailing away from the protests because they heard reports that the police opened Taksim and Gezi Parkı back up again, then I think this will just be a blip on the screen.

More soon.

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