If last summer’s Gezi Park protests in Turkey proved anything, it was the power of social media, especially Twitter. While mainstream media outlets kept quiet after the mass protests broke out on May 31, Twitter users reported live from the demonstrations with texts, pictures, and videos. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose harsh rhetoric added fuel to the Gezi fire, called Twitter “a scourge.”
Part of the reason why the prime minister lashed out against the social media network was because his party could not respond to protesting Twitter users effectively. It looks like Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has learned from its shortcomings.
Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Virginia. He was recently a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (Barın Kayaoğlu).
Barın Kayaoğlu, a visiting fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).
How spies from such a diverse group of countries agreed to, and succeeded in, destabilizing Turkey so easily and so quickly, we do not know.
But Prime Minister Erdoğan’s turn to conspiracy theories bears a strange paradox: since he came to power over ten years ago, his top priority has been to improve relations with both global investors and foreign nations.
Since a small sit-in in Istanbul turned into mass protests throughout Turkey two weeks ago, many commentators have criticized Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric against the demonstrators. But unlike what observers think, the Turkish prime minister is not increasing tensions – calling the protestors “looters” and organizing flash rallies where he threatens to unleash his supporters – because he is desperate or because he is blinded by rage or because he has lost touch with reality. Although Mr. Erdoğan seems like he’s unwittingly pouring fuel over fire, everything he does is meant to serve a political objective.
That objective is Çankaya, the district in the capital Ankara where Turkish presidents reside. The term of the current president, Abdullah Gül, ends next year. It is no secret that Mr. Erdoğan wants to expand the powers of the presidency and succeed Mr. Gül as president.
But how does Mr. Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric serve his aspirations? Although the prime minister has been saying offensive things for a long time, it was around 2007-2008 that he began to use a more divisive discourse. In April 2007, the Turkish military, unwilling to see Mr. Gül become president because his wife wears the Islamic headscarf, issued a memorandum on its website threatening to overthrow the Erdoğan government (Mr. Gül was foreign minister at the time). Had the military succeeded, it would have been the fifth coup in republican Turkey. The episode coincided with the “republican rallies” (Cumhuriyet mitingleri) against Mr. Gül’s candidacy.Then, the country’s secular establishment fought another battle against Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) by threatening to close down the party at the Constitutional Court.
In this context, Prime Minister Erdoğan learned a simple lesson: he would not be able to appeal to diverse segments of Turkish society anymore. As a result, he came to rely on more conservative social groups who shared his worldview. In other words, Mr. Erdoğan began to pursue his agenda not through pluralism but through establishing majorities with those conservatives who would not otherwise vote for an AKP with a diverse social base. That’s precisely why the prime minister is still making assertions about the protestors that are proven to be false: that they “attacked the police” and “drank beer inside a mosque.” These allegations are sure to galvanize not only AKP supporters but also the country’s religious and nationalist majority. The prime minister is aware that popular anger against the protestors would turn into votes for him in next year’s presidential election.
Burning Turkey for Çankaya
Mr. Erdoğan, however, faces a dilemma: his tactic in escalating tensions, which served him quite well until now, could backfire. If the protests, which have remained generally non-violent so far (except for instances of police brutality), get out of control, the prime minister’s chances in the presidential election could be jeopardized. After all, Mr. Erdoğan would not be able to capitalize on his image of “man of order and economic growth” if Turkey experiences large-scale violence.
Here’s why: because the presidential election will be contested in a popular vote for the first time in Turkish history, Mr. Erdoğan’s electoral strategy would be to take more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. A second round, which would pit Mr. Erdoğan against another popular candidate, would be too risky. If the opposition parties CHP and MHP do not nominate an ideological, combative, and divisive candidate but someone who could appeal to broad segments of society (a popular bureaucrat, artist, or even a retired general who does not have the “coup-maker” stain), it is possible that voters could choose such a candidate over Mr. Erdoğan. In that respect, it is also sensible for CHP and MHP to nominate President Gül, who is eligible for reelection and is more widely respected than the prime minister.
At this point, Prime Minister Erdoğan has to ask himself these two questions: is Turkey worth burning for the sake of Çankaya? More important, would a burnt Turkey award him with Çankaya?
Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and is a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.
It started off as a sit-in of merely 100 people in Gezi Park, a quiet corner of Istanbul’s bustling Taksim Square. Then came the brutal police crackdown that turned the sit-in into something big and unprecedented. A week, three deaths, and thousands of injured and arrested later, the mass protests in Turkey reveal many ironies about that country and its role in the Middle East.
It is ironic for Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, to animate so many people. Under Mr. Erdoğan, Turkey’s per capita income increased threefold, foreign trade more than quadrupled, and political and judicial reforms improved governance. The AKP’s initial zeal to lead Turkey into the European Union raised the standards of free speech and democratic expression. Furthermore, by ending civilian subordination to the country’s once all-powerful military, Mr. Erdoğan put a stop to one of the most stifling aspects of Turkish politics.
To be sure, Turkey is not Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya and certainly not Syria. Mr. Erdoğan – whatever his shortcomings (and he has many) – is no Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, or Muammar Qaddafi and certainly no Bashar al-Assad. He was reelected with close to 50 percent of the votes in the last election and he still enjoys popular support. That hardly makes him a dictator.
But neither are the protestors a handful of “looters and extremists” as Mr. Erdoğan and his allies claim. In fact, according to the survey mentioned earlier, the people participating in the protests are very much a product of the reforms that the AKP enacted. Close to two-thirds of the protestors are below the age of 30. 53.7 percent are taking to the streets for the first time in their lives. Only 15.3 percent have any partisan affiliation. 91 percent resent the government’s disregard for democracy and freedom. To make their case, the protestors point out how major news outlets in Turkey still remain silent on the protests lest they incur Mr. Erdoğan’s wrath. The demonstrators see an overbearing prime minister and a cowered media as an obstacle to their hopes for a more democratic and liberal Turkey. They worry that, if the prime minister becomes president next year with greatly expanded powers, he will become even more authoritarian.
Yet despite their qualms about Mr. Erdoğan, and unlike what AKP supporters claim, the protestors do not want the prime minister to be toppled in a military coup. Less than ten percent of the respondents believe that another coup would benefit Turkey. That’s a good sign: the country has experienced four of them since 1960 and military intervention in politics has always been a self-defeating game. Unlike Egypt, where people welcomed the military as a guardian against Mubarak in 2011, Turkish protestors want their soldiers to stay in their barracks. It seems that Mr. Erdoğan has really put the beast of coups d’état to sleep forever.
Another ironic element of the Turkish protests is that, although a majority of their participants do not identify as AKP supporters or conservative, nearly 10 percent of them apparently voted for the AKP. An even larger group of conservative Muslims (especially girls who wear the Islamic headscarf but do not identify with the AKP) are among the protestors.
In fact, images from the protests show how participants cut across every social, economic, and political divide in modern Turkey. Until the troubles, fights between the supporters of the country’s three largest sports clubs were the most serious public safety concern. Now, these fans march and resist the police together. Leftists and nationalists stand should-to-shoulder. The protestors – rich and poor, Turk and Kurd, straight and LGBT, women who wear headscarves and those who do not – reflect the richness of Turkey’s social fabric. For building such a diverse coalition of opponents, Mr. Erdoğan deserves much of the credit.
The way that the protests have played out so far – predominantly peaceful, politically pluralistic, and socially diverse – shows that a new generation of Turks is rising up against the tried and tired authoritarianism of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. If the protestors can continue to frame their demands in terms that would appeal to broader segments of Turkish society without antagonizing AKP supporters (which they seem to be doing), there is reason to hope that the new wine in Turkish politics will manage to change the old and crumbling bottle that contains it.
That would be the greatest irony of the current tumult in Turkey. Although the country has failed to offer a meaningful example to its region since the Arab Spring began, if the protests do succeed in expanding rights and liberties for the individual and in helping to consolidate a secular democracy with a free market economy in a Muslim-majority country, Turkey could truly become a model for the region.