Lessons from Turkey

What began on May 28 as a protest against the planned redevelopment of a park in Istanbul, to accommodate the construction of a replica Ottoman-era barracks and a mosque, has snowballed into a national political crisis for Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP). But, with at least five deaths and thousands injured and imprisoned, Mr Erdogan does not seem to be dealing with the crisis very well.

After a small group of protesters occupied Gezi Park in Taksim Square, the prime minister resorted to harsh language – dismissing them variously as “miscreants,” “extremists,” “looters” and “terrorists” – and heavy-handed action a few days later, sending in riot police with tear gas, water cannon and bulldozers to clear the square. This merely served to spark more protests in cities across the country, with more clashes between protesters and police and calls for the prime minister’s resignation.

Even though the deputy prime minister has since apologised for police aggression and acknowledged that the government had mishandled the situation somewhat, Mr Erdogan himself has remained defiant, refusing to apologise for his attitude and the government’s response. Just yesterday, he proclaimed, “Our patience is at an end. I am making my warning for the last time.” And even though he affected to adopt a conciliatory position by proposing a referendum on the issue, this has failed to convince his critics, since it would not be legally binding.

The general scepticism regarding Mr Erdogan’s sincerity and willingness to find a genuine solution to the current standoff between protesters and the authorities goes far beyond the actual cause of the protest. The Gezi Park controversy is not the first example of the prime minister’s gross disregard for popular objections to grandiose development projects and he is, moreover, regarded as an arrogant figure, whose governance over the past decade has been criticised as undemocratic and polarising.

Even though Mr Erdogan’s three terms in power have resulted in incontestable economic gains for the country, with average annual growth of 5 percent, his tenure has been marked by authoritarian tendencies and restrictions on press freedom, and dogged by fears of an Islamist agenda contrary to Turkey’s secular heritage, as he and the AKP have courted Turkey’s huge Muslim population, more and more of them, especially in rural areas, inclining towards conservative, religious views. To top it all, the prime minister is preparing to run for the presidency in 2014, even as he is pushing for constitutional change to give the president executive powers.
Thus, in spite of economic prosperity, the political and social tensions simmering below the surface in Turkey are coming to the fore, triggered by political insensitivity and the recent police brutality. Now, the prime minister’s intransigence in the face of a worsening political crisis is doing immeasurable harm to his government’s image and that of Turkey itself, at a time of heightened tension in the Middle East, not least because of the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, the self-professed bridge between Europe and Asia and a member of NATO since 1952, also aspires to join the European Union and to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

It had become a point of reference for countries transformed by the Arab Spring, as a model of how democracy can co-exist with Islam but, ironically, Mr Erdogan’s stance against the protesters, who have spanned age groups, social classes and ideologies, is not unlike that of the dictators toppled by the mass popular uprisings across the Arab world.

There are obvious lessons to be learnt here. Leaders, especially those who have been in power for a long time, run the risk of losing touch with their people if not reality. The recourse to intemperate language and the drift to authoritarianism only make the situation worse. There almost inevitably comes a time when the people will decide that they have had enough and, in the age of the internet, protest not only spreads quickly but the iron-fisted response cannot be easily covered up or kept away from national and international scrutiny. A more mature and flexible approach to politics and governance is the only solution.

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