Events in Turkey are still taking their course and so it is obviously premature to write any type of postscript, but I thought it might be useful to try and look ahead and game out some of the longer term consequences of the protests. First though, it is important to dispense with two quick points that I have seen floating around in various places. First, the Turkish government unquestionably displays some authoritarian tendencies and even more unquestionably has a distinct illiberal and majoritarian bent, and the excessive use of teargas on peaceful protestors is nothing short of shameful. Turkey is not, however, a fascist state and neither is it a dictatorship, and throwing those charges around in a vociferous manner won’t make them any less inaccurate. Second, Prime Minister Erdoğan is not going to resign, no matter what some stunningly ignorant folks might speculate. The AKP was elected with 50% of the vote in the last election, which was more than double than the share received by the second place CHP, and Erdoğan does not have any serious challengers in the party who would even think about trying to depose him. When these protests die down, Erdoğan will still be the prime minister, albeit a weakened one and maybe – but not likely – a chastened one, and the AKP will still be Turkey’s governing party. And furthermore, if I had to wager today, I’d bet with a large degree of confidence that the AKP will be Turkey’s governing party after the next election as well.
So how does this thing end? As Claire Sadar noted among other points in an excellent post, the comparisons to the Arab Spring are particularly inapt for a few reasons. The first and most obvious one is that, as I pointed out above, Turkey has free and fair democratic elections by even the strictest standard, and Erdoğan is not an unelected autocrat. The thousands of protestors in the street are shouting for Erdoğan to resign because they are unhappy and it is a convenient slogan to use, but I highly doubt that many of them – and this is certainly the case with my own friends currently manning the barricades in Istanbul and Izmir – have any reasonable expectation that this will happen. Everyone knows that Erdoğan will leave government the same way by which he entered, which is through elections, and because this is his last term as prime minister anyway, the protests are not going to change the timeline of his departure.
Another way in which this differs from the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia in particular is that the military is highly unlikely to get involved. The Turkish armed forces have been brought to heel, first by the democratic reforms that placed the military under true civilian control for the first time in Turkey’s history, and then by the far less democratic witch hunt that jailed over 20% of Turkey’s active and retired officers for alleged coup plots against the government. Civil-military relations in Turkey have been transformed in a way that cannot be overstated, and while I would never go so far as to say that a military coup is absolutely impossible given Turkey’s history, the chances of one happening are infinitesimal.
Finally, the situation in Egypt was marked by scenes of non-uniformed government thugs attacking protestors, armed clashes between supporters of the government and opponents of the government, and a general violent breakdown along sectarian and ideological lines pitting civilians against other civilians. Despite the abhorrent police behavior – and reports indicate that police brutality seems to be slowing down as well – so far we have not seen bands of AKP supporters attacking protestors, and this is a good thing on many levels. When something along those lines occurs, it creates the likelihood of the situation spiraling out of control in unpredictable ways, and hopefully the fact that it has not happened yet means that Turkey is going to avoid large scale violent unrest.
What the situation in Turkey does remind me of in some ways is the J14 social protests in Israel in the summer of 2011, during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis were in the streets protesting over the high cost of living for everything from housing to cottage cheese. Many predicted that this was going to mean the downfall of the government and a radical sea change in Israeli politics, but what actually happened was that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud government were reelected less than two years later. The primary reasons for this were that Netanyahu and Likud still remained popular with a large segment of the population, and perhaps more importantly there was no strong opposition party able to take advantage of the situation and unseat Netanyahu. Labor, which was the main party on the left, was fractured and disorganized, and Kadima’s constituency was not one that had social justice concerns as its main priority as Kadima had never embraced such a platform in any way. Similarly, it’s important to remember that the AKP has enormous support in Turkey, and this might diminish that support but it will not undo it. The economy is strong, many Turks have conservative values that the AKP embodies, and if you are not an educated urbanite or a persecuted minority (such as a Kurd or an Alevi), you are still relatively happy with the job the government is doing. Even more crucially, Turkey has no viable opposition at all. The CHP is little more than a joke, completely feckless and politically tone deaf and with no vision at all other than opposing anything the AKP does out of spite. There seems to be a constituency of Turks who crave a more liberal party that will be a bit more humble and protect the rights of all Turks while keeping in mind that differences of opinion do exist. There is no party currently in existence that can fill that role though, as the CHP is Turkish political equivalent of the Washington Generals and the BDP is too narrowly focused as a party representing Kurdish interests to attract true widespread support. The upshot of this is that when the next elections roll around, I expect the AKP to win again handily, albeit with a smaller total vote share than it received in 2011.
That does not mean that the path of Turkish politics will not be altered. The new presidential system that Erdoğan has been trying to push through is now, in my opinion, dead and buried. Nobody, and that includes people within the AKP, is going to be supporting a system in which Erdoğan gets to be a powerful president, particularly after he has complained that the American presidency is inadequate for his needs because the U.S. president has insufficient power due to having to deal with Congressional checks. This means that President Gül may continue as president without a hitch, but I think what this actually brings about is Gül as the next Turkish prime minister. Gül likely has no desire at all to serve as PM under a President Erdoğan who actually holds the real political power in Turkey, but serving as prime minister in the current system is an attractive proposition. In the last few days Gül has been distancing himself from Erdoğan, first disagreeing with Erdoğan’s contention that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases, and then implying that he might not approve Erdoğan’s new law restricting the sale of alcohol. These are moves designed to shore up his support within the party and to appeal to AKP members for whom Erdoğan’s scorched earth approach is wearing thin.
The irony in all of this is that the likelihood of the party splitting apart is now lessened than it was even a week ago. When Erdoğan stood the chance of becoming the president in a new presidential system, which would have meant unseating Gül in 2014, it would have led to a clash between the two men and the distinct possibility that the AKP would divide into two camps. If the system remain as it is, however, Gül can become a prime minister who actually has real political power, and so despite what appears to be growing enmity between the two longtime friends and political partners, I think the AKP actually stands a better chance now of remaining united, even as it is will be weaker following the damage that Erdoğan has wrought over the past week.
I agree totally- I’ve stated before that the best that can come of this protest, and I believe it would be a real good in Turkey, is to weaken Erdoğan, and allow a greater part of the population a meaningful voice in its government. Nevertheless, screaming “Tayyip Istifa!” at the top of your lungs while banging on a pan is wonderfully satisfying.
I’m sure it is, and it sounds like you have been doing lots of satisfying activities the past few days.
I think the comparison to the Israeli protests is apt. While the protests did not remove Netanyahu from office nor empower Labor and Kadima, they did prove beneficial to Yesh Atid and in a more hidden way to ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi. A change in the configuration of power could benefit Turkey and the quality of its democracy.
Agreed. I actually was going to write a paragraph about the Yesh Atid scenario, but the post was too long as it is. Perhaps tomorrow.
Excellent analysis. Interesting comparison to Israel 2011. I’m no great fan of “Chemical Tayyip,” but suspect your points are well-taken about the vast differences between Turkey and, for example, Egypt.
Thanks. Erdoğan’s actions are disturbing, but the comparisons to Mubarak are so far off-base, as are the comparisons between the Turkish and Egyptian states more generally.
Regarding the line “if you are not an educated urbanite or a persecuted minority (such as a Kurd or an Alevi), you are still relatively happy with the job the government is doing,” I feel like it should be noted that the combination of these groups is at least half the population, if not more. It doesn’t contradict your point, but it’s important to keep in mind.
I certainly hope you’re right about the prospects of the presidential system. It is almost certain that Erdogan would get reelected if he ran again, and I really do think that some of his other political aspirations, such as the constitution writing process, switching to a presidential system, and getting elected as the next president, are going to be affected. I’m just a bit more hesitant to announce the presidential system “dead and buried.”
Finally, interesting point at the end about Gul and Erdogan. It might help keep the AKP intact, but I’m curious to know what you think will happen to Erdogan if the system remains the same and Gul becomes prime minister – become president? If not, what? I just can’t imagine an AKP without Erdogan being the dominating figure and/or at the highest position of power. One thing is certain – it’s going to be a very interesting time for Turkey from now on through the elections next year.
I really have no idea what Erdoğan will do. I can envision him becoming president, but it will be odd to have him in what is supposed to be an apolitical role given his history and personality.
A couple of points:
– It is true that the current regime is in no way fascist, and that it has been democratically elected. But beyond the police brutality, please also note the hundreds (if not more) journalists who have been jailed under the current regime. It’s not exactly a thriving democracy either.
– It is also true that there are differences with the Arab Spring movements. Though I think that there are also similarities due to the authoritarian characteristics of the regime. But to compare the uprising with protests in another (well established) democracy over rising prices is, in my opinion, myopic.
What we have in Turkey right now is a clash between the secular minority and an Islamist-oriented regime, indeed democratically backed by a majority, over its efforts to impose its agenda.
This is important: A religious political agenda, and much more an Islamic one in my opinion, seeks to impose its values throughout society. The recent examples in this case being alcohol restriction, and various other changes in policy, for example in the matter of abortion.
So it is not that surprising that an attempt to impose yet another measure (not clearly Islamic, but connected to Erdogan’s grandiose plan for the future, neo-ottoman revival with a neoliberal twist) became the spark that ignited the fire.
In my opinion, this is not equivalent to protests about the economy. This is about a struggle that touches on existentialist issues for the Turkish nation, with possible serious repercussions in the years to come. The stakes are too high; they involve the future character of the Turkish state as well as the culture, society within.
In my view, if we were to draw a parallel, I’d say the situation resembles not the Arab spring per se, but what has followed in some cases. Paricularly in Egypt. Though the historical background is different, and indeed the balance is not the same, as Turkey has a much stronger secular middle class which can play a bigger role in shaping future events, yet I see the same situation happening in both cases: Islamist regime trying to transform society; secular population fighting back. Needless to say, this is serious. It’s the stuff civil wars are made of. Or the ingredients for a truly authoritarian state, which will eventually suppress/exterminate those who disagree.
– I’m not sure what the fate of Erdogan will be. I do agree with you though, he is now too strong to be forced to step down. Not sure even if his plans for the presidency are going to be affected. He seems strong willed and has created a divisive situation which might keep him afloat in the short run. But should this be the case, this could be the beginning of a serious internal (social) conflict which will have many more chapters in the future, and an unpredictable outcome for the Turkish nation.