Turkey hesitates between east and west

I’ve been watching and reading all week about the anti-government protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. Rather that trying to give a blow by blow account of what’s happening, I’m going to offer some general thoughts about what it all means.

Speaking very broadly, there seem to be two different narratives going round about the protests. One sees them happening within the basic framework of a democratic state, not unlike, say, the “Occupy” movement in New York and other western cities. The other sees them as more analogous to the Arab Spring, protests against and from the outside of a fundamentally undemocratic system, with the object of overthrowing and replacing it.

Within each narrative, of course, there’s plenty of variety. The first embraces the Turkish government as well as many protesters and their supporters, all of whom believe that change is possible through broadly democratic means (whether or not they think it’s desirable). The second embraces other protesters who are seeking more radical change and pessimistic about achieving it through established channels, although they may differ widely in their strategy or expectations.

Continuing the very broad (but I hope useful) generalisation, the first narrative locates Turkey symbolically in Europe, the second in the Middle East.

But it’s Turkey’s geographical curse that it is inescapably both. Istanbul straddles the divide between Europe and Asia; the Bosphorus Bridge, linking the two halves of the city (which, in defiance of physical geography, have always formed a single political unit), was itself a protest location.

After five days of protests, things at the moment seem to be playing out in a way that’s more consistent with the first narrative. This looks more like Spain than Egypt, and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks more like the embattled but arrogant leader of a democratic state – a Charles de Gaulle in 1968, for example – than like a Hosni Mubarak.

Erdogan’s apparent view that democracy amounts to getting the opportunity to choose whether or not to re-elect a government every four years or so and doesn’t include any obligation on that government to listen to people at other times is, sadly enough, not unusual among elected leaders. But in Erdogan’s absence (on an official visit to North Africa) his colleagues have started backtracking. Al-Jazeera quotes acting prime minister Bulent Arinc as follows:

At the beginning of the protests, the excessive violence used against people concerned about the environment was wrong. It was unfair and I apologise to those citizens … The government has learnt its lesson from what happened. We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition.

This looks like a government that has discovered its powers are not as sweeping as it had thought and is preparing itself, perhaps with bad grace, to come to terms with that.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since 2002. It is clearly the most successful government in Turkey’s democratic history, but no party can stay in power that long without developing a certain closed-mindedness. Perhaps it would be unfair to call the current government corrupt and authoritarian, but there are clearly tendencies in that direction. The heavy-handed response to Friday’s protests was a symptom of where things have been heading.

Part of the problem is that until now, anyone who objected to Erdogan’s style of government didn’t have much alternative. In one of the best analyses of the protests, Steven Cook and Michael Koplow in Foreign Policy refer to “Turkey’s insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey’s lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy.” It’s really only in the last couple of years that it’s been possible to see the AKP and its democratic-authoritarian Islamism as a greater threat to democracy than the secular nationalist-military establishment.

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was outvoted almost two to one by the AKP at the last election, has been scrambling to keep up with the protesters. One of the lasting effects of the protests could well be the emergence of a more credible democratic opposition – either within or alongside the CHP – that will be in a position to capitalise on popular discontent at the next election.

Certainly Turkey would not be the first democracy to learn to live with a more or less permanent radical protest movement, one that uses revolutionary rhetoric but ultimately learns to work within (or is co-opted by) the existing political framework. The anti-austerity protests across much of Europe are obvious examples, and Erdogan’s sometimes reckless pursuit of a pro-business agenda – the sort of policies that get called (misleadingly and sometimes incoherently) “neoliberal” – only reinforces the parallel.

But it’s not either/or, it’s both: although I think the first of the two narratives I identified above has turned out to be closer to the mark, there is an unmistakable whiff of the second as well. It’s impossible to read the first-hand accounts from Taksim Square (try here and here for examples) without thinking that here is a variety of “people power” that we are unaccustomed to in the west. And it is by no means certain that the government is willing to back down far enough for peace to be restored.

Democratic governments do not fall to popular revolution. But that historical lesson is less helpful than it might be, because the question of whether or not Turkey is really a democracy is a big part of what’s at issue.

If the AKP weathers the crisis successfully it will probably be by showing enough flexibility to listen to the protesters and their message. The protesters in turn (or at least a sufficient number of them) will have to believe that the system, for all its faults, is democratic enough for them to be able to hold the AKP to account at the ballot box rather than risk their lives trying to overthrow it in the streets.

It could still all go horribly wrong, but for now it looks as if the script is following New York or Madrid rather than Cairo or Beijing.

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