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1138Gezi Park: Towards a New Political Consensus?

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  • Anjalika
    Jun 3, 2013
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      Gezi Park: Towards a New Political Consensus?


      Turkey protests in pictures

      It is tempting to commentators, when it comes to Turkish politics, to reduce issues along a dichotomy of the religious and secular. Soon after the eruption of the Gezi Park protests, defenders of the protests' plurality were quick to point out headscarves in the crowds – supporters of the government, meanwhile crowed about the Taksim demonstrators' consumption of alcohol. Reporting byone colleague suggests that these protests may have broken down these barriers, that the Gezi Protests may embody a new consensus in Turkish politics.

      Certainly, protests which preceded Gezi have tended to be polarised: at last year's demonstrations against the government's threatened abortion ban, I had been depressed to see how even an issue as fundamental as this did not cut across Turkey's religious/secular gulf. Most of the protests I'd seen pious Istanbullus at were to do with Israel's Mavi Marmara raid – public displays of rage very much endorsed by the government.

      Yesterday evening, I was in Taksim, trying to find out to what extent demonstrations really have breached ideological barriers. The question of who these people are is an important one. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his supporters often conjure images of the illiberal, undemocratic elitists of the secular ancien regime as bogeymen in order to scare and galvanize their own pious supporters. This stereotype has served him well, and he invoked it again yesterday.

      In Taksim, many people were quick to tell me how the demonstrators represented a kaleidoscope of social and political groups: Kurdish nationalists, leftists, rightists, liberals, gay rights activists. When I asked about the pious however, they were divided. One man said a woman in a headscarf had given him milk for his eyes when they were seared by tear gas. But certainly they were not much in evidence. "They are blinded by their religion and are sucked in by Tayyip's lies," said one girl.

      But saying that the protestors are mainly secularists does not mean that their demands can be pigeonholed into a fight about secularism.

      The issues mentioned by every demonstrator I spoke to go beyond that simplistic conception of Turkish politics: they expressed raw anger at a leader and government that are growing more arrogant, more authoritarian, more dismissive of dissent.

      These protests began with the uprooting of trees to make way for a shopping mall, an issue that itself cuts across political divides. In Turkey you do not have to be a leftist or a rightist, an Islamist or a secularist, to care about quality of life or the environment. The demonstrators who went to Gezi Park on Monday were not going in the guise of ardent, abrasive leftists or foaming rightists who repel as much sympathy as they attract.

      Moreover, the mall project perfectly encapsulated the government's arrogance, impunity, and the whiff of capitalist cronyism surrounding it. The plan is widely perceived as a way for the government to transform a public space into an arena for private profit. It is among a stream of opaquely-planned engineering and infrastructure schemes – large and small – that the government is thrusting on the city without consultation. There is the third Bosphorus Bridge, whose groundbreaking ceremony took place this week. There is a plan to erect a vast mosque to crown Istanbul's largest hill. There is Erdoğan's own `crazy project': a canal, rivaling Panama and Suez, that will run parallel to the Bosphorus. Regardless of their various merits and demerits, these projects drive home a feeling of powerlessness among many Istanbullus who are watching their city being redrawn around them. These changes are being mirrored by parallel ones in the sphere of what many regard as `lifestyle issues': a strict new alcohol law that banishes booze from TVs, shop windows, and billboards; `morality' regulations that outlaw public kissing in Ankara; and so on.

      These issues have formed a perfect storm for Erdoğan. The shamefully meagre coverage by the national media has spurred on protestors' anger further, and shown definitively that the brief renaissance in press freedom in the AKP's early years is over. Before the protests began, anger was still festering over terrorist attacks in the southern town of Reyhanli, in which 52 people died. As reasons and perpetrators were sought amidst the rubble, many people blamed the government's loud support for the Syrian rebels as a motive behind the bombings, and heavy-handed attempts to blot out press coverage of them have deepened fear and mistrust on the issue.

      One thing Mr Erdoğan can be thankful for is that the Kurdish nationalist movement – whose supporters are better acquainted with the smell of tear gas and the thump of batons than anyone – are for the moment relatively quiet, lending the demonstrators restrained support. Their hopes of reform have been raised thanks to the continuing peace process negotiations between the PKK and the government. If the police have learn anything from three decades of civil unrest in the region, they will go far easier in Diyarbakir than they have in Istanbul.

      Now, with the demonstrations making world headlines, people who do not normally spend much time thinking about Turkey are fishing for analogies. Momentous as they may be, both the scale of the Taksim protests and the context surrounding them mean they are no Tahrir Square. The differences are instructive, however. Unlike Egypt, Turkey is a democracy, if only in a sense that it has regular, fair elections. Mr Erdoğan and his government could not, and should not be forced down by these protests, something which constitutes the demonstrators' loudest demand. He may retain the support of up to half of the population – the proportion of votes he won at the last election in 2011. It seems likely, however, that this will prove to have been his high water mark. However, a majority of Turks share his pious views and, most importantly, he has delivered a strong economy, new infrastructure, better healthcare, and better governance than his predecessors. His AK Party runs an impressive grass-roots operation against which his secularist opponents have been unable to compete. On Saturday, in a speech goading the protestors and dismissing them and their concerns, he claimed: "I could gather 200,000 where they gather 20, and where they gather 100,000, I would gather 1 million. Let's not go down that road."

      He propounded a worrying view of democracy: effectively a majoritarian dictatorship validated with elections every five years. In this rhetoric, opposition beyond ballot boxes and the parliament he dominates have been deemed `undemocratic'.

      So what next? The thing to watch is not so much the opposition parties, who remain so feckless and divided that they are of more use to Erdoğan as a straw man than to their own supporters. It is from within his own ranks that any meaningful challenge is likely to emerge, from his longtime rival President Abdullah Gül, perhaps, or from within the powerful Islamic Gülen movement. Close attention should also be paid to Turkey's Kurds and to their political leaders.

      How Erdoğan handles this crisis – in his rhetoric and tone as much as in his actions – may have a strong bearing on the future course of Turkey's political culture. Ironically, given his positive initiatives to resolve the Kurdish issue, the Prime Minister does not currently seem to realize that the abuse and disregard of a minority (and a substantial one, in this case) can be as fatal to democracy as was the oppression of the majority in the bad old days of the Kemalist regime, which he so frequently invokes.

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