Two remedies for Turkey
S. Ilgu ÖzlerThe protests in Turkey are in part a reflection of the fact that this is a highly polarized society. But differences do not have to yield violent conflict. The roots of the current unrest can be traced to Turkey’s weak civil society and a political system that tends to concentrate power. Rather than spasms of militant resistance against an autocratic ruler, Turkey needs organizations through which people can make coherent political demands in an ongoing way and a political system that compels leaders to listen and compromise.
Civic participation is very low in Turkey in comparison to the rest of the world. Very few people in Turkey have ever lobbied, written a letter to their representative or attended meetings of the municipality, the school board.erning body. But rarely do citizens anywhere participate in such activities as individuals. Civil society organizations serve as a bridge that leads citizens to democratic political participation. This is where Turkey is lacking. The few civil society organizations that exist in Turkey tend to be segmented along the same dividing lines that characterize partisan politics. There are Islamist unions, nationalists unions and leftist unions, when what Turkey needs are just worker’s unions. There are small groups fighting for Kurdish rights, Alevi rights, Islamist rights and Kemalist rights but few fighting for universal human rights. This type of polarization in associational life only serves partisan interests.
The Taksim Gezi Park Preservation Association, the group that was originally protesting the shopping mall development, is a rare exception to this pattern. Ironically in order to achieve peace and stability, Turkey needs more groups like those who touched off the current chaos in the streets. The Preservation Association is fighting for a universal public good, the protection of an open public space. They did so through the legitimate channels available to them, such as the courts. When those efforts failed they took to peaceful protest. They did all that they should in a free and democratic society.
Building universal civil society organizations is one half of the solution. But there is a problem when peaceful protesters are met with police brutality, and this gets at the other half of the problem. Turkish political parties tend to be top down organizations with few opportunities for grassroots members to participate. This is especially problematic when one party has been in power for 11 years, as is the case with the AKP. In essence, the country has been ruled by one man, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for over a decade. This does not work well in any society, let alone a highly diverse and polarized country.
In parliamentary systems such as that in Turkey, the people are best represented through coalition governments where parties are forced to negotiate and compromise over policy. For the past 11 years, there has been no need for the AKP to compromise. While Erdoğan enjoys the support of under half the population, the opposition parties are fragmented and dysfunctional. Lacking internal democracy themselves, they have no organized membership base that can foster party reform. This is what has allowed Erdoğan to rule unimpeded.
This has worked very well for him and his party up until now. He has been able to aggressively advance his agenda and even now faces little threat to his position in government. Even if protesters are successful in getting the government to step down, it is likely that Erdoğan would win in the new elections. But he must recognize that he only has the support of about half the country’s citizens. The other half has few opportunities to express their grievances through civil society organizations or parties. That leaves the streets.
Without strong organizations to coordinate the ongoing protests, Erdoğan may be able to hold out through police repression until the situation is under control.
But if he continues to ignore the half of the population that does not support him, it is just a matter of time before the next eruption. Even if Erdoğan survives this crisis, without some reform of police behavior and party politics with broad consultation, this type of instability will have serious consequences for the country in the long term.
Functioning, competitive and internally democratic parties and strong civil society are at the core of healthy democracies. Turkey has been suffering from a deficit of both. The Turkish people and their leaders should set out to do the hard work of building universalistic civil society organizations and reforming the political parties to make them democratic and accountable. Otherwise, we will continue to smell tear gas in the main plazas of Turkish cities.
S. Ilgu Özler is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations and Director SUNY Global Engagement Program in New York City, SUNY New Paltz.