Thursday, June 06, 2013

What does the protest wave in Turkey mean?

I doubt that anyone knows for sure yet, and any comprehensive answer to that question would have to be complicated as well as tentative.  There are also different ways to frame the question itself.  Here is how Kerem Oktem poses it:
Hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of Istanbul. Tens of thousands of policemen attacking with teargas bombs and rubber-bullets. The Bosphorus bridge heaving with demonstrators. Solidarity meetings all over Turkey and beyond. A government that seems to have lost touch with events on the ground. An establishment media whose patrons have been bullied not to report what is in front of its eyes. A nation in turmoil. A prime minister, who in 2011 was lecturing Hosni Mubarak about democracy and divine justice - and who was re-elected then with a massive popular vote - who now looks awkwardly like the former Egyptian dictator. All this has thrown Turkey into its deepest crisis for more than a generation.

Turkey seems among the unlikeliest candidates for a popular uprising. It has one of Europe's few thriving economies, with record growth, falling unemployment and decreasing urban poverty. The country’s technical infrastructure was never as advanced, its people never as educated, its society never as broadly middle class as it is now. A peace process in Kurdistan promises a new deal with the country’s largest and most brutally oppressed minority after decades of war. The socio-economic factors which drove people in Egypt, Tunisia, Greece and Bulgaria to the streets are largely absent. Despite all this, a small protest in the Gezi Park of Istanbul’s Taksim Square quickly turned into an enormous eruption of protest.

So why Turkey, and why now?
I think Oktem's piece does a good job of analyzing some key dimensions of the background to the current protest wave, which he puts together this way:
What, beyond their immediate spark, has motivated the protests? At least three interrelated factors have incubated them:

* an increasingly uninhibited neoliberal development process
* the government's growing conservative zeal
* a troubled foreign policy

These three factors come together in a further overarching source of discontent: with the prime minister’s authoritarian style of government.
(The term "neoliberal" is not quite right here, a bit closer to sloganeering than analysis, and the term "conservative" is a bit too vague and euphemistic in this context, but OK.)  That last, overarching, factor is the main focus of the piece below, by Steven Cook & Michael Koplow. Their assessment overlaps with Oktem's to a considerable degree, though with some differences of emphases and terminology, so the two pieces are worth reading in tandem. They agree that the repercussions of these protests, and the forms that they take, may prove crucial to the future of Turkish democracy.

=>  On the way there, however, let me toss out some random musings and impressions of my own. As long as I'm indulging in speculative comparisons between politics in Turkey and in other places (as I did a few days ago), I'll add another one. I must confess that watching the eruption of mass protests in cities across Turkey, calling forth a baffled and excessively violent response from the authorities, brings back reminders of 1968.

In 1968 and the years that followed, localized protests about various specific issues (including a so-called People's Park in Berkeley in 1969) swelled into mass demonstrations that expressed a wide and complex range of grievances and aspirations, along with a generalized spirit of revolt against The System.  As in Turkey today, 1968 erupted during a period of sustained economic growth and increasingly broad-based prosperity in western societies.  (And during a period, incidentally, when most western societies were governed by what looked like stable political regimes of democratic representative government.  Some might be inclined to take that for granted, but from a long-term historical perspective, that was an unusual, almost astonishing, situation.  It was also in sharp contrast to the situation in a country like Czechoslovakia, which had its own, very different, Prague Spring in 1968.)  As in Turkey today, students and university-educated young people were in the forefront of the protests, though they were far from the only ones who felt angry and dissatisfied—and in France, to everyone's astonishment, student protests in Paris triggered a nation-wide general strike.

The spirit of '68 continued to inspire various social movements and cultural tendencies for decades, for good and for ill (two of its most broadly positive tributaries flowed, for example, into second-wave feminism and the gay rights movement).  But in the US it also provoked a major cultural and political backlash that, among other things, helped produce an almost unbroken string of Republican presidents from 1969 through 1992 and continued to shape American politics through the end of the century and even beyond. (Prime Minister Erdogan was clearly trying to threaten his opponents with that sort of backlash when he warned them that "if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million."  He might even be right about that, by the way.)

Obviously, one wouldn't want to push those parallels too far.  In many respects Turkey in 2013 is a very different society from the US or France or Britain or West Germany in 1968, and the overall historical moment is very different, too.  Also, I don't get the impression that the aims of the current protest wave in Turkey include the kinds of utopian aspirations that helped give the spirit of '68 its distinctive resonance.  And so on.

Nevertheless, I do think there are ways in which reflecting on Turkey's current protests in light of 1968 can offer useful food for thought.  One lesson is that when massive protest waves seem to appear out of nowhere, making sense of them requires looking for deeper forces under the surface of events. Another is that massive protest movements often derive much of their energy from important grievances and concerns that are not being effectively addressed, or even clearly articulated, by the 'official' processes of electoral and party politics—which happens to be the case in Turkey today.  And when we try to anticipate the likely prospects, dynamics, and repercussions of this protest wave, we should expect to be surprised.

=>  A final remark on the pieces by Oktem and by Cook & Koplow. Both analyses are quite critical of Erdogan and, more generally, of some directions in which Erdogan and the AK Party have been taking Turkey—Cook & Koplow go so far as to describe "Turkey under the AKP" as "the textbook case of a hollow democracy"—but both wind up offering assessments that can be seen as guardedly optimistic, or at least not pessimistic. They regard this protest wave as a justified and valuable reaction against harmful and dangerous developments over the past decade of AK rule. But they also seem to regard the most dangerous tendencies as potentially reformable, and they hope (and half-predict) that this shock will wind up having positive results for genuine democratization in Turkey.

Here is Oktem's summing-up:
Turkey is still a democracy and this protest is not about regime change. It is an explosion of discontent with a leader who has done a lot of good for the country, but who has become arrogant, out of touch, shielded from society by second-rank advisers, and unable to listen to anyone who disagrees with him. Erdoğan’s charisma is now significantly damaged and his chances of becoming Turkey’s president are diminished.

If President Gül and the more independently minded members of the government show that they take the protesters, and the "other 50%" of Turkey's population seriously, then the protests that began ın Taksim Square will enter the annals of Turkey’s history of the struggle for democracy and human rights.  [....]

The stakes are high. But there is now also a prospect for a better, more inclusive democracy in Turkey.
It strikes me, frankly, that this analysis localizes the problem too specifically in one individual, Erdogan. Cook & Koplow are even more tentative in their prognosis, though they hope the AK Party learns the right lessons from this episode:
The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP's heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.
Well, we'll see.

Yours for democracy & political liberty,
Jeff Weintraub

Foreign Policy
How Democratic Is Turkey?
Not as democratic as Washington thinks it is.
June 3, 2013
By Steven A. Cook & Michael Koplow

It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul's Gezi Park -- an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square -- is driving the unrest.

The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.

The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul's Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that "excellent model" or "model partner," is also, as many put it, "more democratic than it was a decade ago." There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous -- the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.

The new political, cultural, and economic openness helped Erdogan ride a coalition of pious Muslims, Kurds, cosmopolitan elites, big business, and average Turks to re-election with 47 percent of the popular vote in the summer of 2007, the first time any party had gotten more than 45 percent of the vote since 1983. This was unprecedented in Turkish politics. Yet Erdogan was not done. In 2011, the prime minister reinforced his political mystique with 49.95 percent of the popular vote.

Turkey, it seemed, had arrived. By 2012, Erdogan presided over the 17th-largest economy in the world, had become an influential actor in the Middle East, and the Turkish prime minister was a trusted interlocutor with none other than the president of the United States. Yet even as the AKP was winning elections at home and plaudits from abroad, an authoritarian turn was underway. In 2007, the party seized upon a plot in which elements of Turkey's so-called deep state -- military officers, intelligence operatives, and criminal underworld -- sought to overthrow the government and used it to silence its critics. Since then, Turkey has become a country where journalists are routinely jailed on questionable grounds, the machinery of the state has been used against private business concerns because their owners disagree with the government, and freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure.

Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations for these deficiencies, from "it's the law" and the "context is missing," to "it's purely fabricated." These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP's simplistic view of democracy. They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Yet somehow, Washington's foreign-policy elite saw Turkey as a "model" or the appropriate partner to forge a soft-landing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.

In the midst of the endless volley of teargas against protesters in Taksim, one of the prime ministers advisors plaintively asked, "How can a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote be authoritarian?" This perfectly captures the more recent dynamic of Erdogan's Turkey, where the government uses its growing margins of victory in elections to justify all sorts of actions that run up against large reservoirs of opposition.

The most obvious way this pattern has manifested itself is in the debate over the new Turkish constitution, which Erdogan had been determined to use as a vehicle to institute a presidential system in which he would serve as Turkey's first newly empowered president. When the opposition parties voiced their fervent opposition to such a plan and the constitutional commission deadlocked in late 2012 -- missing its deadline of the end of the year to submit its recommendations -- Erdogan threatened to disregard the commission entirely and ram through his own constitutional plan. He floated the idea again in early April 2013, but softened his position as it became clear that there is significant opposition to his presidential vision even within the AKP.

Turkey's new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP's majoritarian turn. Despite vociferous opposition, the law was written, debated, and passed in just two weeks, and Erdogan's response to the law's critics has been to assert that they should just drink at home.

Similarly, the AKP is undertaking massive construction projects in Istanbul, including the renovation of Taksim Square, the building of a new airport, and the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, all of which are controversial and opposed by widespread coalitions of diverse interests. Yet in every case, the government has run roughshod over the projects' opponents in a dismissive manner, asserting that anyone who does not like what is taking place should remember how popular the AKP has been when elections roll around. In a typical attempt to use the AKP's vote margins as a  cudgel,Erdogan on Saturday warned the CHP -- Turkey's main opposition party -- "if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million."

Turkey's anti-democratic turn has all taken place without much notice from the outside world. It was not just coercive measures -- arrests, investigations, tax fines, and imprisonments -- that Washington willfully overlooked in favor of a sunnier narrative about the "Turkish miracle." Perhaps it is not as clear, but over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk.

All this is why the current tumult over the "redevelopment" of Gezi Park runs deeper than merely the bulldozing of green space. It represents outrage over crony capitalism, arrogance of power, and the opacity of the AKP machine. In the media, Erdogan has encouraged changes in ownership or intimidated others to ensure positive coverage -- or, in the case of the Gezi Park protests, no coverage. In what was a surreal scene - but sadly one that was altogether unsurprising to close observers of Turkey -- CNN International on Friday was covering the protests live in Taksim while at the very same time CNN Turk, the network's Turkish-language affiliate, was running a cooking show as the historic heart of Turkey's largest city was in enormous upheaval. This dynamic of Turkish press censorship and intimidation, in which media outlets critical of the government are targeted for reprisal, has resulted in the dismissal of talented journalists like Amberin Zaman, Hasan Cemal, and Ahmet Altan for criticizing the government or defying its dictates. This type of implicit government intimidation is unreasonable in an allegedly democratic or democratizing society.

Under these circumstances, Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union's requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey's insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey's lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.

The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP's heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.

It is not just the AKP that needs to reassess its policies, but Washington as well. Perhaps the Obama administration does not care about Turkey's reversion or has deemed it better to counsel, cajole, and encourage Erdogan privately and through quiet acts of defiance like extending the term of Amb. Francis Ricciardone, who has gotten under the government's skin over press freedom, for another year.

This long game has not worked. It is time the White House realized that Erdogan's rhetoric on democracy has far outstripped reality. Turkey has less to offer the Arab world than the Obama administration appears to think, and rather than just urging Arab governments to pay attention to the demands of their citizens, Washington might want to urge its friends in Ankara to do the same as well. The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government's actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth.