Will Turkey’s Protest End Democracy?

In the Magazine
Sinan Cakmak/Anzenberger/Redux

The voice on the loudspeaker sounded through Gezi Park again Saturday night. “Children, old people, and sick people, please leave the area,” it said. And then the riot police advanced, beating back the crowd with water cannons and tear gas. One woman was dragged screaming from her tent; other protesters ran, choking through the haze. Some threw rocks, and some formed human chains.

Until that night, a tentative calm had settled over central Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where protesters had been gathering for two weeks against a plan endorsed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to bulldoze the small adjoining park. For the first time since those protests began, central Istanbul was starting to settle down. The city’s main square and the streets around it hummed with shoppers and tourists, as if it were a normal summer Saturday. Erdogan had struck a tentative truce with protest leaders two days earlier, and the park—the epicenter of countrywide unrest—had become another Istanbul attraction. Tourists photographed the sprawling encampment protesters had erected there, an Occupy-style tent city with its communal library and political-outreach stalls. Families visited, and some artistic-minded activists held a painting workshop for kids.

Then Erdogan decided he’d had enough, and the calm disappeared. Around 8 p.m., police announced via loudspeaker that they were about to attack, sending bystanders fleeing as protesters scrambled to get word to colleagues who’d taken the détente as a chance to get some rest. They assembled at the park’s edge, facing down riot police.

Since taking office in 2003, Erdogan had grown the economy on the strength of a surging middle class, overseen democratic reform, and wrested the country from the clutches of its military, winning ever more support from voters along the way. Even with many of its Muslim-majority neighbors in the throes of upheaval, Turkey was widely hailed as a model of regional stability.

But as his electoral power increased, Erdogan appeared to grow increasingly unwilling to be challenged. That proved to be the case when the largest anti-government demonstrations to hit Turkey in recent memory erupted around the plan to redevelop Gezi Park, with protesters across the country comparing Erdogan with the Arab Spring–shaken dictators he’d famously counseled on democracy. The government’s heavy-handed response to the protests—while a far cry from the deadly crackdowns seen across the region in recent years—only fueled critics who warned that the conflict was bringing out Erdogan’s authoritarian stripes.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey- Embed2 Police used tear gas and water cannons, radicalizing the gathered protesters. Lu Zhe/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

While Turkey’s president gave a statesmanlike speech stressing the right to peaceful assembly, Erdogan lambasted the protesters as “looters” and “terrorists.” He railed about foreign plots and vowed revenge against unnamed provocateurs, suddenly echoing the strongmen he’d once admonished. And he oversaw a police response that saw the center of one of the world’s most visited cities overcome by chaos and tear gas. At a rally in Ankara earlier on Saturday, Erdogan had ordered that park be cleared: “This country’s security forces will know how to empty that place.”

Erdogan isn’t used to being challenged in this way. Since rising to the top, he has enjoyed unrivaled popularity.

THE PARK may be emptied, but the turbulent scenes of protests and clashes that have gripped the country of late may be the “new dynamic of Turkish life and politics,” says Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program. That’s because Erdogan, so used to running the country however he sees fit, suddenly faces a new kind of opposition—just as defiant as he is and determined to stage the kind of resistance in the streets that it could never raise politically. As one 21-year-old university student put it shortly after he was evicted from Gezi Park on Saturday night: “We’re going to show our strength again elsewhere.”

“Now we are awakened,” added one of his friends.

Erdogan isn’t used to being challenged this way. Since rising to the top of Turkish politics, he has enjoyed unrivaled popularity, thanks largely to the strength of his conservative base. Erdogan grew up poor in Istanbul, hawking lemonade on the street to help support his family. Later he helped to found the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP), which built a broad following with its emphasis on social work and outreach among traditionally marginalized conservatives, many of them from the country’s underclass. After becoming prime minister in 2003, as he aggressively pursued membership in the European Union, Erdogan oversaw a series of political and economic reforms, including a new civil code that gave women equal status and offered new protections on minority rights.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey- Embed4 There were respites from the violence, for the police and the protesters (above). Tolga Sezgin/NarPhotos/Redux

As Turkey rose economically and opened up from its past as a “guardian state,” writes the University of Oxford’s Kerem Öktem in Angry Nation, his 2011 history of modern Turkey, Turks began to enjoy “the promise of a free and democratic society, and the hope of becoming a ‘normal’ country, whose citizens could look beyond issues of daily survival.” This surging optimism only boosted his electoral success, helped along by an inept and fractious opposition. In Turkey’s last national elections, in 2011, Erdogan won an impressive 50 percent of the vote. The AKP now controls the presidency, the judiciary, and the prime minister’s seat, on top of a vetoproof majority in Parliament.

As Erdogan has amassed electoral power, though, longstanding accusations over what critics call his authoritarian tendencies have come to the fore, while liberal and secular opponents warn that he and his party are looking to impose a religious agenda. These fears have been fueled by two controversial measures passed this year: educational reforms that push curricula more toward Islam and restrictions on alcohol advertisements and sales. Erdogan has argued that he is a defender of Turkey’s secular traditions, but his rhetoric—sweeping declarations that all women should have three children, or that anyone who drinks is an alcoholic—has made many Turks worry about more stringent restrictions to come.

‘Even before the protests the question of whether he was going to be a democrat or not was [already] there.’

Press freedom, meanwhile, remains a serious concern in Turkey. The country has long jailed journalists for alleged connections to its Kurdish rebels, drawing scathing criticism from media watchdog groups. Even mainstream journalists, analysts say, are increasingly under the government’s sway. Those critical of the AKP can find themselves threatened with lawsuits, and in speeches Erdogan isn’t shy about singling out by name those who have drawn his ire. The media can also face financial intimidation—parent companies might lose state contracts in other areas or face audits.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey- Embed5 A protester watches on June 11 as police enter Taksim Square for the first time in more than a week. Daniel Etter/Redux

Some Turkish outlets, such as Hürriyet, one of the country’s leading newspapers, gave prominent coverage to the recent protests from the start. But many others, most notoriously on television, initially paid little attention. Then, once the protests became impossible to ignore, they largely parroted the government lines. “As you can see, protesters are now attacking police,” one Turkish TV reporter announced to his camera during Saturday’s Gezi raid, as the protesters around him were beaten back steadily, putting up only a meager nonviolent resistance along the way.

Other moves to increase the Erdogan administration’s power can likewise be convoluted but effective. In 2010, for example, the government pushed through a judicial reform that allowed it to appoint several new justices to the supreme court. And while Erdogan has won due praise for defanging the military, many officers and others have been jailed over allegations of coup plots that international experts agree are based at least in part on fabricated evidence.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey-Embed6 Having won 50 percent of the vote, critics say, Erdogan feels he can run the country as he wants. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Many Turks, however, say that above all they are concerned with Erdogan’s perceived ambitions. As mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he once likened democracy to a “train,” explaining that one could simply get off when it arrived at the intended destination. In private, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, American officials have long been suspicious. In one, Erdogan is described as believing that he’d been chosen by God to lead Turkey. In another, penned in 2010, James Jeffrey, the ambassador at the time, offered this somber warning: “No one can be certain where this whole choreography will fall out of whack.”

As Erdogan reaches his term limit as party leader next year, which will disqualify him from running for prime minister again, he is expected to throw his hat in the ring for a run at president. Some analysts believe he would seek to amend the Constitution to make the presidency more powerful if he won.

Öktem, the Oxford scholar, says questions over Erdogan’s intentions helped to fuel the recent protests. “Those questions have become increasingly pressing,” he says. “Even before the protests, his rhetoric was getting ever more harsh, ever more divisive, and ever more ideological. The question of whether he was going to be a democrat or not was [already] there.”

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey-Wide2 Erdogan’s attempt at reconciliation with the protesters didn’t last long. Sinan Cakmak/Anzenberger/Redux

THAT TURKEY’S current unrest has erupted over a tiny local park—one that, until recently, was very much anonymous—seems fitting to many of Erdogan’s critics. They call it emblematic of a key problem with his tenure, one that has helped to fuel all the recent talk of authoritarianism surrounding a man who has been so steadily successful at the polls. Having won 50 percent of the vote, these critics say, Erdogan feels that he can run the country however he wants, brooking no dissent and paying little regard to the concerns of the half of the country that didn’t support him.

Erdogan has put his weight behind a number of controversial redevelopment plans in Istanbul, such as a new mosque that would alter the city’s skyline and a third bridge over the Bosporus, something that critics compare to a sultan seeking to leave his mark on the city. Blaming President Obama for the traffic around Times Square would sound unhinged, but criticizing Erdogan for the same around some construction-choked sections of central Istanbul would have some basis in fact. Residents complain that they have little say over massive projects that are upending their lives.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey-Embed7 The Turkish protest had echoes of the American Occupy movement. Daniel Tepper/Redux

In Gezi Park, slated to be razed to make room for a shopping mall, people had decided to fight back—and in doing so have created a new kind of opposition in Turkey. Initially, those who came to a small sit-in to stop the bulldozers were locals, environmental activists, architects, and city planners who objected to the plans. But police cracked down fearfully, and images of the violence—coupled with the idea of the government again trampling on dissent—struck a nerve. Within days, tens of thousands of people had swarmed the streets of central Istanbul, which filled with tear gas as police battled the crowds. Like-minded protests spread across the country.

Many of the country’s notoriously ineffective opposition groups were quick to join the movement, though the protests maintained their middle-class, middle-of-the-road base. On weekday nights during the Gezi occupation, numbers swelled by the thousands as supporters stopped by after work. If it became clear that a police showdown wasn’t imminent, they went home to get some rest.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey-Embed9 Mothers of the protesters came to Taksim Square to support them. Sinan Cakmak/Anzenberger/Redux

Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute, says this “part time” nature of the movement is what gives it rare staying power. And those secular and liberal-minded opponents who have felt trampled by Erdogan politically have now seen that they can make their voices heard on the street. “They never knew they had these numbers,” Cagaptay says, or that they could organize so effectively over social media. “This is going to become a permanent dynamic of Turkish politics—if not on Gezi Park, then on other issues where the style of government is at stake.

“The AKP never thought and felt that it should take into account a meek minority in the Parliament,” Cagaptay adds. “And now it has realized that it may be bigger than that.”

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey-Embed10 Riot police cleared Taksim Square last week. Guillaume Darribau/Fractures Photo Collective/Redux

In a rare move toward conciliation, Erdogan hosted some of the Gezi Park protest leaders at the AKP headquarters in Ankara last week. According to one, 29-year-old Rumeysa Kiger, Erdogan was polite and attentive as those in attendance voiced their anger and concerns, even taking notes. But Erdogan was convinced that the protests had been hijacked by extremist groups, Kiger says. And having offered what he viewed as a significant compromise if the protesters were to leave the park—a citywide referendum on its fate—he appeared set on confrontation if they turned him down. Kiger told Erdogan that the protests had become about more than the park, and that many protesters would refuse to leave even with the offer of a referendum. Erdogan repeated an earlier threat to have the park cleared if people didn’t leave on their own.

Erdogan later cited the protesters’ refusal to accept his referendum offer as the final straw. But Kiger—who had voted twice for Erdogan in the past—said the prime minister’s steely response to the protests had only convinced the new resistance not to back down. “When construction on the new bridge starts, we will be there. When something else starts, we will be there, too. It doesn’t matter,” she says. “If you use the first definition of the word ‘authoritarian,’ then he is not—we voted for him. But running the country however you want, because you won 50 percent of the vote—if you define that as authoritarian, then yes, he is.”

Protesters worried darkly about the government’s invocation of ‘terrorism’ and simply left the streets.

Erdogan, for his part, looks unlikely to back down. Instead, analysts say, he may become even more divisive as he looks to rally his base and shore up his political support. “He is consolidating his constituency,” says Ceren Kenar, a Turkish journalist and columnist who covered an Erdogan rally in Istanbul on Sunday that drew tens of thousands of supporters, many bused in on the AKP’s dime. “The whole rally was about this: ‘they want to destroy you, and we are with you.’” This could be a dangerous game. After Erdogan’s rally Sunday night, social media filled with photos of his supporters bearing sticks and knives and marching in unison with riot police.

Central Istanbul, meanwhile, was a picture of unease after the dust from the Gezi raid cleared. The park was closed off even to the press, and the square around it cordoned off by police. Protesters who tried to enter the area were met with water cannons and tear gas, and hundreds were arrested. Some leaders of a local soccer fan club that had been instrumental in the protests—the Istanbul version of Tahrir Square’s famous Ultras—were arrested from their homes. Some local journalists, as well as medical workers who had been treating protesters in makeshift aid stations, were also detained.

061913-Giglio-fe0323-Turkey-Embed11 Facing riot police, a demonstrator raises his hands into peace signs. Daniel Tepper/Redux

Protesters worried darkly about the government’s constant invocation of “terrorism”—some of the authorities making the arrest, in fact, were the feared anti-terror police—and simply left the streets. “We’ll identify one by one those who have terrorized the streets of our cities,” Erdogan said over the weekend.

In the leafy neighborhood of Cihangir on Sunday, a 10-minute walk from Gezi Park, small pockets of protesters were being hunted by police. Tear gas filled the air, and residents quietly propped open the front doors of their apartment buildings so that people could take refuge. One group of protesters stood on a set of stone stairs that descended down to the Bosporus. Suddenly a police officer appeared, firing off a lone canister of tear gas. The protesters fled, with the officer and his colleagues in close pursuit. Several escaped into an open apartment building, cowering in the stairwell as the cops tackled and arrested a man who’d been left behind.

Eventually they made their way into one of the apartments. “Please don’t be seen—there’s a baby here,” the apartment’s owner said, urging the newcomers away from the windows with a toddler in her arms. One of those who’d entered the apartment was a 28-year-old woman who was afraid to give her name. She said she’d never been very political before and had gone to the initial Gezi sit-ins on a whim. But the ensuing crackdowns seem to have launched her into a state of permanent protest. She said she was terrified as she and a friend fretted over whether they’d be targeted for their posts on Twitter, even though they had less than 200 followers between them. “I’m peeing my pants. I’ve never been gassed before,” the woman said. “But I’m not stopping.”

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