The original version of this analysis can be found (in Italian) on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoint
Clearly, the protests that are shaking Turkey have very little to do with Gezi Park’s trees. What hit Istanbul first, followed by many other Turkish cities, is the backwash of institutional problems that have been lingering for decades; problems that the AKP, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, has so far benefitted from, and has in part exacerbated.
When, in April 2007, Erdogan decided to have Abdullah Gul (one of AKP’s most important representatives) running for President, secularist circles erupted against what they perceived as a threat to one of the institutional strongholds of Turkey’s secular identity. In their view, AKP’s unilateral decision to present Gul as candidate for the position once held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was too radical a break from the tradition that saw the presidential post reserved to generals or, more recently, to political figures of Kemalist inspiration. The Turkish General Staff published a declaration on their website, reiterating the armed forces’ loyalty to the principles of Kemalism, and stressing that they were ready to intervene should such principles be violated – a critique to both AKP’s political positions, and to their attempted concentration of powers into AKP’s hands, as the party also had a solid parliamentary majority.
Shortly after the statement was published, millions of Turks hit the streets to stage a peaceful protest against Gul’s candidacy, many of them chanting “neither sharia, nor coup” – an attempt to express how they were against the potential intrusion of religion into politics, but also asking for the military, who staged four coups (with the most recent one in 1997) and are traditionally considered the guardians of secularism, to stay out of the issue. Regardless of how numerically impressive the rallies proved to be, Turkish society’s ‘silent half’ only emerged during the general elections held in July 2007, when Erdogan won with a 46% majority. The two main opposition parties, the secularist CHP and the nationalist MHP, only obtained a 20% and 14% share of votes. Subsequently, AKP MPs single-handedly elected Gul President, despite CHP’s and MHP’s opposition.
What we see on Turkish streets today has some commonalities with what happened in 2007; however, over the last few years some fundamental changes have also took place. Erdogan has been elected for the third time in 2011, with 49% of votes. CHP has attempted to reshape itself, replacing its traditionalist leader Deniz Baykal with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who, on paper, was supposed to bring new ideas and new energies into the party. But a real change was never achieved, and after an underwhelming electoral result in 2011 (25%), CHP has progressively backpedalled towards more traditionalist and Kemalism-centric positions.
In the meantime, military circles were shook by the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which focus on an alleged clandestine network that, according to prosecutors, has been operating since AKP’s first victory in 2002 in order to facilitate and eventually stage a military coup. The imprisonment of hundreds of military officers had the consequence of delegitimizing, at least temporarily, the military’s footprint in Turkey’s domestic politics, curbing their influence. Over the last years, those more critic towards the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases have defended the hypothesis that the trials would in fact be a mere purge against the armed forces, AKP’s arch-enemy, as well as against the most staunch voices from the opposition, as dozens of journalists jailed due to charges based on opinions expressed on the Turkish media.
The political crisis of 2007 already reduced the military’s political expectations, as they had to take a step back when faced by the overwhelming majority Erdogan obtained through the ballot box; moreover, generals were also aware that none of the alternatives to an AKP government would have guaranteed Turkey’s political stability. Regardless of the extent to which the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases are legitimate, the detentions that were carried out over the last years (about 400 military officers are currently behind bars) played a significant role in isolating the most radical members of the armed forces, and in reducing the general’s influence.
After having consolidated his political power, reduced the military’s political influence, and kept criticism at bay, Erdogan achieved ideal conditions to push AKP’s political agenda ahead without any problem. The protests of Gezi Park want to address this convergence of powers towards Erdogan, his idea of a democracy that should express itself only through elections, and his increasingly confrontational attitude and refusal to accept dialogue. The few activists that first occupied Gezi Park a few days ago were dealt with by the police through a disproportionate use of force, in what became the brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest. That event turned into the boiling point for a large share of Turkey’s society, who, over the last months, felt like Erdogan was running a one-man show. The fact that the Turkish media purposely ignored the protests (turning CNNTurk’s penguins into a powerful symbol) did nothing but further radicalising the protest, exposing even more how the Turkish system is suffering from a concentration of powers and from the lack of a functioning system of formal and informal checks and balances.
Among those protesting, a small minority has been calling for the military to intervene; however, their expectations clash against the lack of political and social conditions that triggered military interventions in the past. On the contrary, the protester’s vast majority claims decisional autonomy on a range of social issues on which Erdogan demands sole authority – just what military juntas did in the past. Erdogan’s rough style has simply triggered protests that have been lingering for quite some time among AKP opponents – and those who expected a more moderate AKP alike.
However, Erdogan’s electoral weight should not be overlooked. Since 2002, general elections systematically turned into quasi-plebiscites for his party, while the CHP has regularly lagged behind, and the 10% threshold kept smaller parties from emerging. From the position of strength he gained over the last ten years, and being well aware of Turkey’s political dynamics, Erdogan showed a defiant stance towards the ongoing protests. He also accused the international media, social networks, and foreign secret services of (respectively) having provided biased and false information, and of having fuelled protests to destabilise his government.
We can see two different ideals of democracy clashing in Turkey today. On one side, the ideal held by that part of society who protests against a model that, recent democratic achievements notwithstanding, still maintains the rigid and centralised structure that the Constitution (written by the military in the aftermath of the 1980 coup) embeds. On the other there is Erdogan, his political project, and the ‘silent’ part of society that supports him.