As anyone who has been casually following the news knows by now, Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities across Turkey are awash in protests, with calls for Prime Minister Erdoğan to resign and scenes of Turkish police using massive amounts of tear gas against protestors throwing up barricades in the streets. The protests began with a few hundred people rallying in an Occupy-type scene in an effort to save Gezi Park, a small green space bordering the northern side of Taksim Square in Istanbul. The government has announced plans to replace the park with a replica of the Ottoman-era barracks that used to exist on the site, replete with a shopping mall and museum. While I have always found Gezi Park to be relatively drab and unimpressive, there are many Istanbullus who see it as a small haven in the middle of a sprawling city, and when the government began to uproot trees in the park last week and then responded to protestors with violence, Istanbul exploded. For some good summaries of what has gone on, read Hugh Pope, Claire Sadar, and Agent L. To see what Istanbul looks like in the aftermath of an unprecedented outburst against the government, check out the array of pictures here.
So how did some angst over the cutting down of some trees turn into such a huge eruption of protest? Brent Sasley has correctly pointed out that there are long term processes at work and that any government in power for a decade is bound to cause frustration. This is particularly true when the government in question has been acting less and less democratic with each passing year. Last June, Steven Cook and I argued in Foreign Affairs that the AKP had been increasing opportunities for Turks to participate in political and civic life while making it far more difficult for anyone to contest the government’s power. In the time since we wrote that piece, however, Erdoğan and the government have actually reversed course on the participation front in a number of ways and become far less responsive to many social concerns on the theory that being elected with such huge vote margins entitle the government to do anything it pleases, no matter how vociferous the opposition or how many Turks feel disenfranchised in the process. The heavy-handedness of Turkish majoritarian democracy has led to frustration under the surface, which is now boiling over thanks to the Gezi spark. All of this leads to the question of how democratic Turkey actually is, and whether the Obama administration has been wise to rely so heavily on Turkey to help forge a new and more democratic Middle East. Steven and I tackled this topic yesterday in Foreign Policy, and argue that Turkish democracy is not nearly as strong as is widely perceived in Washington. Here is a teaser, and for the rest please click over to Foreign Policy:
It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square — is driving the unrest.
The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.
The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul’s Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that “excellent model” or “model partner,” is also, as many put it, “more democratic than it was a decade ago.” There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.
For the rest, see here.