Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013
It’s certainly not another version of the “Arab Spring”; Turkey is a fully democratic country. It’s not just a Middle Eastern variant of the Occupy movement, either, although the demands of the huge crowds who have occupied the centre of Istanbul and other Turkish big cities are equally diffuse and contradictory.
It’s more like the student uprising in Paris in May, 1968, although most of the demonstrators in Turkey are neither Marxists nor students. Like the Paris demos, it began over local issues and has rapidly grown into a popular revolt against an elected government that is deeply conservative, increasingly autocratic, and deaf to all protests.
The original issue was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to destroy Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping mall in a city that already has far too many. The park is the only green space in the newer part of downtown, north of the Golden Horn, and covering it over with yet more shops was bound to meet with some resistance.
At the start of the protest, on May 27, only a few hundred people occupied the park. It might all have petered out if the police had not attacked them with clubs and tear gas.
The protesters came back in far larger numbers the next day, and the same thing happened again. By the third night, city centres were being occupied all over Turkey, and it wasn’t just about Gezi Park any more.
Prime Minister Erdoğan dismissed the protests as the work of “a few looters” and “extremist elements.” Unruffled, you might call him – just as you would have described French President Charles De Gaulle in the first days of the 1968 revolt in France.
But what is it really about? After all, Prime Minister Erdoğan has led his moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to three successive wins in national elections, each time with a bigger share of the vote. He has presided over a decade of high-speed economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, and he has finally forced the army out of politics. Why don’t they love him?
Some do, but many people think he has got too big for his boots. Erdoğan retains the support of the pious and deeply conservative peasants and recent immigrants to the cities who make up the bulk of his supporters, but he wouldn’t have won without the backing of secular, urban voters who saw him as the best chance to expel the army from politics and put Turkish democracy on a firm footing. He has now lost their trust.
He won it by promising that his government would not shove conservative Islamic values down everybody else’s throats, and until recently he kept his promise. But his last election victory, in which he got 50 percent of the vote in a multi-party race, has emboldened him to believe that he can ignore his erstwhile secular supporters.
He has pushed through new laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite the misgivings of most Turks, he enthusiastically supports the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, as part of a broader strategy of re-establishing the political and economic dominance that the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed in the Sunni Arab world.
So where does this end up? Not with the overthrow of Turkey’s elected government, and probably not in a military coup either. Most likely there will be apologies, and some government concessions, and the turbulence will subside. Erdoğan will not even be removed as AKP leader right away, though some of his senior colleagues now clearly see him as a liability.
The protesters in Paris in May, 1968, didn’t get what they wanted right away either. Indeed, like the protesters in Gezi Park today, they weren’t even sure exactly what they wanted. But 11 months later Charles De Gaulle resigned, and France has never since had to cope with the problem of a Strong Man in power.