No one expected that the environmental demonstrations that began in Istanbul on May 27 would turn into the country’s largest and most influential anti-government protest movement in decades, bringing various segments of the country’s opposition together. Ironically, this success belongs to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His harsh language in reply to the protesters’ demands, and his failure to rein in the police’s violent response, have prompted people from all aspects of Turkish society to take to the streets. The protests have opened a new chapter in Turkey’s political history – as well as a new window of opportunity for the opposition to come together and challenge Erdoğan’s conservative, authoritarian Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the upcoming election cycle.
The events of the past week reflect pent-up frustration about the ruling AKP’s ever-tighter grip on control over various aspects of daily life. Erdoğan has largely ignored or put off those who oppose his actions and has even indirectly threatened protesters, saying that he might not able to keep the 50 percent of Turks who support him in their homes and he could bring 1 million people onto the streets. It was a very dangerous and irresponsible statement.
What’s next in Turkey? It is too early to assess the complete impact of the so-called “Occupy Gezi” movement, but at this point, one can outline the most probable political implications. It is important to realize that the current unrest is unlikely to make any short-term change; after all, Erdoğan’s government was fairly elected, and for it to fall because of street protests would suggest a troubling instability. But the Turkish public has given a strong message to Erdoğan, the ruling party, media, academia, and opposition parties, and they all should take a lesson.
First of all, the Erdoğan government must take steps to ensure that the citizens’ grievances are answered – though the prime minister’s intransigence suggests that such steps won’t be led by him. Unless other senior AKP officials start seeing the existential risk for their party and take action, the party could find itself in a downward spiral.
Perhaps more important than considerations of party politics, a physiological barrier of fear seems to have been broken, suggesting that people will no longer be afraid to express their dissatisfactions.
The military coup in 1980 and the rise of Turgut Özal after that created an apolitical generation. But now young people have been politicized again on a grassroots level, creating great potential for both democratic and economic growth.
They have now experienced first-hand what they can do when they join their voices together. Instead of sitting back and watching as their complaints go unnoticed and unanswered by the likes of Erdoğan, they are likely to become more confident. The protests have also galvanized a strong feeling of unity and solidarity among the demonstrators, who largely represent the middle class but have included people from very diverse backgrounds. Such a unification of different groups is something that Turkey hasn’t experienced in a long time; it could be a game-changer in Turkish politics.
This movement has developed ahead of a very intense election cycle for Turkey. Local and presidential elections are set for 2014, while the general election will follow in 2015. And Erdoğan has made grand plans for the period, aiming to implement a new Constitution and institute a presidential system (with himself as president) with weaker checks and balances. It would be premature to talk about the protests’ impact on the elections themselves, but it seems clear that they will cause an important setback to Erdoğan’s ambitious objectives – which is good for the democratic fundamentals of Turkey.
Erdoğan’s rhetoric of labeling protesters as terrorists and or marginal actors, as well as blaming social media for inciting the unrest, reminded Turkish citizens of the ugly statements coming from the despotic regimes of the Middle East. The Occupy Gezi movement may not be the “Turkish Spring,” as the media was so eager to call it, but it might be a vital step in stopping a future “Turkish Winter” from happening. The next move must be to work toward creating a unified political opposition that can provide a workable – and electable – alternative to the authoritarian Erdoğan and his party.