Erdoğan and the changing character of demonstrations

Erdoğan and the changing character of demonstrations

So far the Justice and Development Partly (AKP) government has won all the political struggles against its traditional rivals. However, a new breed of opponents, limited in number, proved to be a challenge over the last couple of weeks.

Erdoğan and his bureaucrats were not able to accurately assess the phenomenon in its infancy. This was a new movement, its form unfamiliar, its strategies unprecedented. Yet the government saw this as an ordinary law enforcement issue and left its management to the police.

On the contrary, this was a political issue and the protestors had a mosaic structure. Those who directly participated or indirectly supported the movement were not a homogenous group. They had no formal structure, no leader, no organization with traditional features and no open set of objectives. A formally structured police force cannot easily deal with such an informal structure.

This was a pop-up movement that operated like a versatile, informal network. Interestingly, as demonstrations grew in scope, their character, composition and discourse also quickly changed.

The most important shift was that radical groups within this heterogeneous movement entrenched themselves. These small pockets of alert and hostile Cold-War remnants seized the opportunity. After all, legitimate and useful environmentalist arguments were in circulation. The government tried to solve the problem through the police instead of dialogue and thereby spent its most valuable asset: time. This provided the radical groups with great propaganda material. As always, they acted faster than the government.

The government does not know how to address the issue of pop-up, versatile, informal networking. It is in search of a new strategy. But it seems that it is currently trying a method inspired by popular counter-insurgency strategies: Divide, clear and restrain. First of all, it is trying to distinguish the soft demonstrator from the hard protestor. But the line that divides these groups is so fine that such a distinction does not apply either in Taksim Square or in the media and in the people’s minds. Secondly, it is trying to clear the radical groups in the movement. The third and final stage will probably involve the effort to restrain them.

This strategy might give the government a “local law-enforcement victory” in Taksim, but the phenomenon’s pop-up character, political nature and the fact that there are “unhappy” masses questioning the legitimacy of authority mean that a total victory is difficult. Let’s not forget that the organization that is more professional and smarter than the current crowd, i.e. the outlawed Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK), is still off the stage, probably waiting for more encouragement from those repulsed by Erdoğan.

The most rational solution for Erdoğan is to set the game to the mode in which he plays best: Elections.