Are the violent protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square the beginning of the Turkish version of the so-called Arab Spring? Is this the beginning of the end for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan?
The answer to both questions is ‘probably not.’ But, if the government continues to rely on heavy-handed suppression of any and all dissent the protests could expand beyond the vocal minority that has always been opposed to Erdoğan and his socially conservative, Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP). But for the moment the prime minister should be able to rely on the same wide political base that brought him to power in the first place.
The risk for the prime minister and his party is that the Taksim demonstrations have exposed new vulnerabilities in the usual bombast and bluster he uses to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with him. Previously the volume of his fierce, rigid, uncompromising positions would stop opponents in their tracks. That tactic didn’t work this time. The demonstrators ignored his commands to cease and desist. They resisted. And that resistance encouraged many who didn’t like Erdoğan’s methods, but up to now had never dared openly express their opposition.
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The spark that set off these demonstrations was the plan to replace central Istanbul’s one remaining small bit of green space into yet another concrete shopping centre. Istanbul is already crowded with shopping centres, but the prime minister is convinced the city needs another one. No one has dared ask just why Istanbul needs another shopping centre. Up to now it was enough to say simply that the prime minister wanted it. During his long rule he has always preferred concrete over green spaces, and is never happier than when he sees concrete being poured into more roads, brutal tower blocks, or bridges.
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But this environment protest quickly expanded into a general outcry against his increasingly autocratic ‘My-Way-Or-The-Highway’ style of governance. The exact nature of the issue does not really matter. The prime minister’s approach is always the same – I’m right and you’re wrong. He will use facts that may technically be correct, but are completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. His initial response to the people protesting the elimination of the green space in Gezi Park was that the AKP administration has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, and that the people had no right to complain. His claim about tree planting may or may not be true, but does nothing to answer the criticism that Istanbul has become nothing but an ocean of concrete.
Another early response to the park protestors was typical of his governing style. He told reporters that the decision about the shopping centre has been made, and the protestors should go home. Father has spoken. Do as he says. Sit Down and Shut Up! The fact that they didn’t pay any attention to him must have come as a huge shock.
His government recently passed strict rules governing the sale of alcohol. Erdoğan himself does not drink or smoke, and has no time for anyone who does. In his world view there should be no alcohol or smoking. He even went so far as to say that the Turkish national drink should be ayran (liquid yogurt) instead of the popular alcoholic drink rakı. To justify making his personal life style choice the choice of the nation he cited alcohol regulations in parts of Europe like Finland. Accurate as far as it goes but this comparison completely ignores the vast difference between alcohol consumption in Turkey and Finland. Only a tiny portion of the Turkish population uses alcohol, and it is no wonder that those that do drink believe he is merely attacking their life style choice.
On the day the protests broke out he was busy laying the foundation for the controversial third bridge across the Bosphorus. This bridge also will rip up priceless forest land for highways. He proudly announced the name of the new bridge as the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. He either forgot or simply did not care that this particular 16th century sultan was responsible for slaughtering thousands of Alevis in Turkey. Needless to say the millions of Alevis (distant cousins to the Shiites) in Turkey today are a bit uneasy about the symbolism of this name. But the prime minister and his minions don’t really think that the Alevis practice a legitimate form of Islam, and he just doesn’t care what they think.
It’s too early to tell if these protests will weaken Erdoğan’s hold on Turkey. His base support probably won’t change, but he risks losing the opportunists who sided with the AKP for commercial or political advantage. The old saying ‘kiss the hand you can’t bite’ is as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago. When people start to believe they can bite the hand that has fed them so well over the last decade Erdogan could be in trouble. If the opportunists sense cracks in the AKP facade they could shift their allegiance in attempt to capitalise on the next wave. However, such a move requires a credible opposition. And this so far has been lacking. Perhaps these protests will galvanize the disparate opposition groups to take Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice to the American revolutionaries in the War of Independence – “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Maybe these protests will generate the unity in the opposition that could possibly challenge Erdoğan’s vice-like grip on Turkish social, political and economic life.