Turkey's dissatisfied majority

Erdogan must now prove his democratic credentials

Nineteen-year-old Aytug, is quite clear: “This is about Tayyip Erdogan. Yes, it is a quite personal matter for people like me. No one can insult us! No one can bully us! The Prime Minister is a servant. Not the master! Period!” For outsiders, the tumultuous events of the past three weeks are unlikely to seem so clear-cut. The Taksim Square movement is problematic because it seems to offer something for everyone. Though most writers have avoided full-blown Arab Spring analogies (whilst alluding to it in headlines), the protests have been interpreted as a sibling of, variously, the Occupy movement, the Spanish indignados, Greek anti-austerity demonstrations, or even Iran in 2009.

These are valid comparisons in two respects only. First, all these movements involved resistance to seemingly unaccountable powers unreachable through ordinary political processes. Second, all consist of broad coalitions whose goals often both overlap and contradict each other. Neither observation, though, does much to advance an understanding of the recent and ongoing explosion of defiance in the heart of Istanbul.

Perhaps the least useful but most common analysis relies on a trope that will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in Turkey: the clash of secularists versus Islamists. Under this reading, Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), after sending the previously dominant military back to their barracks, has spent the past decade eroding the Republic’s longstanding separation of mosque and state. Horrified “White Turks”—secular, urban, westernised—now find themselves under siege from a pious majority and with no help from the generals who previously guaranteed the secular republic, at times by force.

This rather misses the point. Anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul are nothing new. Neither is police brutality. What is different this time is that the spectrum of protesters extends far beyond the “usual suspects” of leftists, secularists and Kurds. Despite what has been widely reported in recent weeks, the impressive AKP victory in the 2011 general election fell just short of a majority—when those not voting for any party are included, AKP support drops to around 39 per cent of the population. That might still appear an unassailable margin, but the diversity seen in Taksim Square is the first indication of a new willingness on the part of a broad spread of the 61 per cent who did not vote AKP to actively oppose Erdogan. The Prime Minister's repeated claims that a minority out of step with public opinion is terrorising the country look increasingly untenable in this light. It is deeply unfortunate that much of the reporting from outside Turkey still implicitly endorses his view by continuing to paint a picture of urbanites resisting the creeping Islamisation demanded by most of the population.

Undoubtedly, appeals to religion lie at the heart of Erdogan’s political message. Hopeful Europeans have sometimes likened the AKP to the German Christian Democrats—a party based around, but not dominated by, a moderately conservative view of faith. A better comparison, though, might be with the US Republican Party. This analogy points to the second pillar of Erdogan’s ideology: neoliberal economics.

Just like Ronald Reagan, Erdogan has skilfully exploited demographic change to spin a winning political coalition from a message that intertwines religious conservatism with a narrative of individual aspiration. In Turkey’s case, successive generations of migration from rural areas to Istanbul and other major cities have created a new middle class of “Anatolian Tigers,” a process that sped up during the much vaunted (though perhaps overstated) economic growth of the past decade. Despite deepening inequality, a further tranche of society perceives an opportunity to join the Tigers in climbing the ladder to economic success. For them, Erdogan is the personification of this process.

Although born and raised in Kasimpasa—a lower-income neighbourhood in Istanbul—Erdogan is now among the richest political leaders in the world. His wealth is no issue for most of the conservative middle and lower-middle classes for whom he is one of their own. The story of the Prime Minister is the story of making it in the city: working hard, refusing to accept setbacks, but remaining loyal to traditional values. From this viewpoint, Turkey was long run by secular elites severely lacking in these qualities. Now, though, upwardly mobile believers are engaged in a project of restoration, bringing old Islamic values back to centre stage. Simultaneously, they embrace a sharp-edged capitalism that holds out the possibility of economic and social ascendancy, even if this is destined to remain out of reach for most.

This, of course, is not the full picture. It may come as a surprise to outsiders that large numbers of social liberals and non-religious free-marketeers had until recently also stood behind Erdogan, or at least not actively opposed him. For left-liberals, the AKP represented a political force with the power to finally stop the generals’ repeated interference in democracy, which had brought brutal coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Erdogan’s successful demilitarisation of Turkish political institutions meant that for a while many could look at the AKP and see an apparently progressive party. For economic liberals, any Islamic tinge to AKP ideology was tolerable while the party remained an essentially centre-right vehicle concerned with privatisation and neoliberal reform. Of late, though, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tone has eroded the terms of this conditional support from liberals of both stripes and opinion polls have begun to reflect their drift towards the opposition.

Erdogan, however, seems to have become convinced of his own invincibility after repeated electoral victories. Previously regarded as pragmatist, careful to accommodate a wide coalition of views within his message, he has reacted to the recent haemorrhaging of liberal support by pushing the stick even further in the direction of neoliberal Islamisation. With more and more feeling unrepresented by the AKP, many protesters would like to see a significant cut to the threshold that means any party registering less than a 10 per cent vote share in general elections is not represented in parliament. Removing or lowering this bar would doubtless allow a wider range of voices to be heard, without recourse to the streets. The Prime Minister, instead, makes no secret of his desire to concentrate power even further by adopting a presidential system, built around his own charismatic and personalistic leadership.

As tolerance of dissent shrinks and military influence is replaced by a similarly unaccountable police force, the risks of empowering a new executive are worrying a growing number of Turkish citizens. Erdogan seems to be pulling even further away from pluralism and towards a monophonic version of what he imagines to be majoritarianism, just at the moment in which this majority may be finally disappearing. In this context, the AKP’s treatment of democracy as essentially a matter of voting every few years, with little respect for dissidence in between, looks both provocative and risky.

Many supposed motivations for the protesters, then, like the new restrictions on alcohol, are simply red herrings. It was the viciousness of the police response to the original minor protest, together with a complete failure of empathy on the part of AKP officials, which lit the spark for the beginnings of a wider movement. Crucially, this happened at a moment in the political life of the country when active opposition to Erdogan has expanded way beyond the usual minority to encompass a colourful coalition who no longer feel represented. The time was right for the ensuing show of unprecedented solidarity, as demonstrators of all political persuasions massively swelled the original group of protesters and resisted police pressure far longer than anyone could have expected.

This combination of scale and then endurance took both government and opposition by surprise and is a signal that Erdogan’s previously untouchable majority is probably now up for grabs. Three elections in the next two years—municipal, presidential and parliamentary—will put this to the test. The Taksim Square movement has defined the battleground for all these contests. This is a direct challenge to the Prime Minister: prove your democratic credentials.