Continuing public demonstrations in Turkey, centred around Taksim Square in Istanbul, with supportive demonstrations elsewhere, have raised many questions. Comparisons have been made with the Arab Spring, although Turkey is an established democracy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political future appears uncertain, with speculation that President Abdullah Gul may run again for president and that he represents a more acceptable face for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which, under Erdogan, has won an unprecedented three elections. Erdogan has been criticised for becoming increasingly authoritarian. Comparisons are being made with the earlier governments of Adnan Menderes and Turgut Ozal, whose initial popularity waned after a decade. What is the role of US domiciled religious philosopher Fethullah Gullen and his movement’s influential followers, reminiscent of the Opus Dei, who seem to favour the president?
At heart is the competition between different concepts of what constitutes modern Turkish identity, the place of religion and the degree of tolerance for those who differ.
The sweep of Turkey’s rich history provides some parallels. Strong Turkish leaders have made Turkey what it is, beginning with the Seljuks, who conquered Central Asia and Turkey and the Ottoman Sultans who captured Constantinople and went on to rule half of Europe for three centuries. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, took over when Turkey had become the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, its territorial integrity under threat and parts of it under foreign occupation.
To strengthen and modernise Turkey, Ataturk initiated reforms in which secularism came at the cost of the innate religious conservatism of arguably the majority of the rural and poorer segments of society. Kemalism became the ideology, Turkishness/nationalism and secularism its main attributes. The Kemalists regard themselves as the keepers of the flame, an enlightened elite destined to rule. The military remained a powerful political force, sometimes taking over, but always a force to be reckoned with till sent back to the barracks by the Erdogan government.
Under the AKP, the pendulum of Turkish polity swung in the other direction to the discomfort of the Kemalists and the large and influential liberal society that had been built up. Nonetheless, an uneasy balance remained in place most of the time. The achievements of Erdogan in turning around the depressed economy, inherited in 2002, Turkey’s growing standing and its role within the region as well as internationally, are undeniable, providing a buffer for the strains between the secular and conservative forces that lie beneath the surface.
Media reports overlook this being the second manifestation of large-scale secular/liberal demonstrations against the AKP and Erdogan. In 2007, when it was believed Erdogan would stand for president, an estimated million protesters in Ankara and 700,000 in Istanbul made their feelings clear. As a compromise, Gul became the AKP candidate and after considerable opposition within the parliament and military misgivings, he became President. Now Erdogan — whose party regulations rule out a third run for any prime minister — is trying to change the constitution for a presidential system and wants to run for president in 2015. Gul appears ambivalent about a second term.
Erdogan may have moved too fast in some areas of social and personal space to regain ground lost to the Kemalist secular state since Turkey became a Republic in 1923. The redevelopment of Taksim is not an issue on which to make a stand. The protesters from different age groups, walks of life and political inclinations have found an issue to coalesce around to voice their hitherto inchoate dissatisfaction.
The liberal youth, the intellectual, middle class society and their Kemalist partners have their base in the cosmopolitan and coastal Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum region. Here, people tend to be more moderate and aware of their rights as they see them. They consider the Islamic tendencies of the AKP government a threat to their concept of “Turkishness”. Erdogan’s considerable support lies in the northern and eastern parts of Turkey dominated by devout sentiment, which has always been wary of Kemalism and secular ideology.
The protest movement, which the president and the deputy prime minister have tried to dampen down, has its own dynamics, significant Turkish media support and the tools of the social media, which Erdogan will be mistaken to underestimate.
Many in the West, particularly the media, uneasy of any country, especially a Nato member, demonstrating an Islamic identity, seem to have been waiting for the day to cut Erdogan down to size.
Despite such misgivings and American statements questioning the government’s heavy-handed tackling of the demonstrators, both Erdogan and the West are aware of their dependence on each other for a variety of reasons. Neither is interested in any action that can possibly destabilise the only democracy standing between Europe and the Middle East.
It will be unwise to count Erdogan out. However, these protests can polarise society further, damage his popularity and standing now and in the forthcoming presidential elections, unless he moves quickly to save the situation and to turn issues of more importance such as Syria.
Erdogan, though continuing to maintain a hard stance in his statement in Tunisia, should adapt and compromise to reach out to demonstrators representing significant elements of Turkish society who consider their modern and liberal way of life under threat. The Ottomans maintained a soldier from the Janissary Presidential Guards, whose sole task during state occasions was to whisper in the Sultan’s ear, “Remember you are human and fallible”. A leader who has done much for Turkey and is much admired in the Muslim world must rise to the occasion as a statesman.
Ambassador Tariq Osman Hyder is a retired Pakistani diplomat.