Turkish democracy survives the test, so far

The Turkish protest movement is not over. There were further clashes near Istanbul’s Taksim Square yesterday, after police cleared it and adjacent Gezi Park of demonstrators on Saturday night, and it’s reported today that Turkish unions have called a one-day national strike to protest against the government crackdown.

Nonetheless there is no sign of a return to the mass anti-government mobilisation of a fortnight ago. The clearing of the square was accomplished with no more violence than we have seen in many western cities, from “Occupy Wall Street” to the anti-austerity protests of southern Europe. The government appears to have won this round.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has probably antagonised his opponents more than was strictly necessary (although he may see some political advantage in that), but in general he has played his cards reasonably well. He held talks with some of the protesters, promised to halt the controversial development in Gezi Park pending a court decision and possible referendum, and allowed his colleagues to make appropriately apologetic noises about police over-reaction and the need to listen to the people.

As long as he follows through with these conciliatory moves – and especially resists the temptation to punish the protesters who have been detained, rather than quietly let them go over the next week or two – it’s likely the protests will be no more than a continuing irritant, not a threat to the government’s survival.

The week before last I argued that the protests were a test of whether Turkey was really a democracy or not. If that’s true, it’s a test that so far it has passed. It seems that most of the government’s opponents, as I put it, “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.”

The fact that the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre fell during the protests was a helpful reminder: there are worse things than tear gas and water cannons. In some countries, protests like this end with troops, tanks and live ammunition. As my friend Irfan Yusuf remarked last week in the New Zealand Herald, “one wonders what would have happened if this kind of protest had taken place under previous Turkish governments.”

Saying this is not to defend Erdogan or his police: any violence is bad, and it’s very possible that things could have been handled more peacefully. Many countries (Australia among them) need to take police brutality a lot more seriously than they do. And it remains true that some miscalculation by the government could see the protests return to life even more strongly.

But the fundamental point is that the fate of Erdogan’s government will be in the hands of voters at the next election. The task for his opponents is – to coin a phrase – to “maintain their rage”, infuse some life into Turkey’s opposition parties (or start new ones), and present the Turkish electorate for once with a real choice.

4 thoughts on “Turkish democracy survives the test, so far

  1. I’m sorry but the information, videos & stories I’m seeing coming from friends in Turkey contradict your story. The absolute savagery shown by the police with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons & shields against protesters, journalists & bystanders is horrendous. Today a 14 year old boy on the way to the shops to buy bread was shot in the head with a tear gas canister. He is in ICU after undergoing surgery for a shattered skull with a unknown prognosis. Under instructions from Prime Minister Erdogan people are being hunted down and arrested – they are so worried about “disappearing” they are calling out their names so people know they have been taken away. There are plenty of videos making it to YouTube despite the Turkish government blocking phone networks & fining the only TV station who actually reported on the protests.

    I would expect more from a site like Crikey.

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  2. Thanks Steve. Look, I’m sorry if I sounded cavalier about the treatment of the protesters; that certainly wasn’t my intention. I do think that the militarisation of police and police tactics is a serious problem that we should be addressing. But it’s not peculiar to Turkey – you’ll find videos of the “Occupy” protests in New York and even Melbourne, not to mention more recent violence in Spain and Greece, that show very similar things. My point is that there’s a world of difference between that and the way such protests play out in actual dictatorships. Again, that’s not to say that Turkey couldn’t still go the other way, but my call is that that seems unlikely.

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