Friday, June 7, 2013

Gezi Park and the Turkey Protests; Erdogan and the "Turkish model"

The so-called "Turkish model" has been said to have been the main inspiration for the "Arab Spring". Turkey's political model of marrying Islam within a democratic state was supposed to be the exemplar for the Arab world. In the space of a few days, that "exemplar"'s political model has been seriously shaken, if not shattered.

It's worth remembering on what basis Turkey's political system operates. Turkey was founded by Ataturk, who wanted to create a secular (non-religious) state out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. As Turkey was a Muslim country, this required an authoritarian government to bring about this social change, and a multi-party democratic system only came properly in practice years after Ataturk's death.
It was only after the Second World War that Turkey began to experience a functioning multi-party system, although this also included intermittent periods of military rule. Religion and politics were still kept well apart. Prior to the "breakthrough" of the AKP in 2002, there had only been one government by an openly-religious party: that of the "Refah" (welfare) Party in the mid-nineties, which was quickly removed after only a year in office for overstepping the lines between secularism and Political Islam.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist AK Party "broke the mould" in 2002. After the mistakes made by the "Refah" Party in the nineties, Erdogan realised that to gain a real breakthrough, his party had to find a balancing act between adhering to secularism while still appealing to the views of the many Turks (perhaps as many as half) who were practising Muslims. This "balancing act" has paid-off at the ballot box, by keeping Erdogan in power for a third consecutive term, something unprecedented in contemporary Turkish politics.

But by "breaking the mould" of secular Turkish politics, Erdogan was also able to effectively re-cast a new one that would give him and his party an in-built advantage. As the AK Party was the only major party that was moderately religious, and whose standpoints were generally moderate, this meant the AK Party ruled the roost over a crowded field of secular parties. In other words, while the "Muslim vote" could well remain united behind the AK Party and Erdogan (as long as they appealed to them), the "secular vote" was effectively splintered - by leftist, centre and rightist parties.

This is a simplification, though, because in reality many secularists have also voted for the AK Party as they approved of their economic policies and tolerated the AK Party's (seemingly) mild Islamism. But over time, Erdogan has shown more overt signs of Islamism and authorianism, as well as an intolerance for criticism. In his first term, Erdogan seemed eager to look as harmless as possible, but over time it seems his true nature underneath gradually began to appear. Laws began to appear to remove some of the "secular restrictions" on freedom of religious expression (such as wearing headscarves in public buildings); this then turned to restrictions on freedom of speech and a covert censoring of the press. Journalists became covertly harassed and some jailed. The military were also "reformed" so they were more acceptable to Erdogan's liking. Abdullah Gul, Erdogan's former foreign minister, became President. And then there were also the more obvious signs of "creeping Islamisation": the government making laws to restrict certain types of public behaviour and more conservative social policy, and finally the laws to restrict the sale of alcohol. Which leads us to Gezi Park.

This was the straw that broke the camel's back, but it was the brutality of the police response to a peaceful "sit-in" by environmentalists in a small leafy park in the middle of Istanbul's modern centre (next to the city's main square) that what provoked the mass response.
It would be a simplification to say that the protests are by the "other fifty percent" who are secularists rather than Islamists, but this is still largely true. While there are some devout Muslims who are showing solidarity with the movement, the majority of demonstrators are secularists who want to preserve Turkey's founding values, and also see Erdogan personally as a natural authoritarian who has eroded the rights of Turks during his time in office. A third issue is the anti-Capitalism platform, who see Erdogan and the AK Party as shameless capitalists who have made great strides with Turkey's economy, but at the expense of civic and environmental issues.
So in this way, the "Gezi Park" demonstrators are pro-secular, anti-authoritarian and anti-Capitalist. Or more exactly, their supporters may come from a wide spectrum of political beliefs (from anarchists and communists, to right-wing nationalists, including gay rights and environmental campaigners), but they are united in their acceptance of each other. If there is one thing they all agree on, they would agree that they stand for freedom of expression and respecting each other and the shared environment. They see Erdogan as embodying the opposite.

The protests have been compared to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, but it would be more accurate to say that the protesters have simply learned from both these past experiences, and applied a strategy and tactics to suit the situation. The widespread nature of the demonstrations, still ongoing in different cities across the country after a week (with no signs of disappearing), is evocative of Tahrir Square and Egypt two years ago, but Turkey is not a dictatorship, and its Muslim population do not feel under-represented.

The protests seem to have a life of their own. There are no leaders. The group of demonstrators are so disparate that it might seem hard to understand what keeps them from arguing amongst each other (as they had been for the last ten years), but as I said, it seems to be the bigger picture - their dislike of Erdogan and the aggressive police - that unites them.
The spirit of "Gezi Park" is that of live-and-let-live, or so it seems. Since the police left Gezi Park and Taksim on Saturday (1 June), barricades were constructed on all the roads leading up from Besiktas (where the police retreated to), leaving Gezi Park and Taksim Square as a virtual "police-free" state. Since then, a self-contained (if crowded!) community has established itself in the park and environs, right in the middle of the city centre; complete with shops, a library, art open-air art galleries, as well as tents. To all intents and purposes, like Christiania in Copenhagen, this looks like the spontaneous creation of a community of free-will and free speech: where people care for each and respect each other, without the need for laws or police (or money) to control them. The difference is that the Gezi Park community is overtly a political forum as well as a place of freedom of expression and behaviour.

In some ways the protests are also reminiscent of the Poll Tax riots against Margaret Thatcher in her last years in office, who - like Erdogan - was a populist demagogue in many ways, using divide-and-rule tactics to run the country, and became more and arrogant, dictatorial and aggressive as time went on. She was finally ousted by her own party. Some claim that she was a psychopath; many populist demagogues are.

Erdogan's style of rule therefore has more parallels with that of Thatcher's in the UK than Mubarak in Egypt. But since then the nature of protest has changed and matured, become more inventive and dynamic. People like Erdogan are left to feel like political dinosaurs of a different age when events suddenly are changed by a new dynamic. Like Thatcher, who was forced from power without really understanding why it happened, Erdogan refuses to see the need to adapt, as he has never needed to before, and would consider it a humiliation to do so.

His populist and divisive tactics may well finally work against him now.

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