The Other Turkey

Usman Butt

Photo source: Today’s Zaman.

Protests have gripped Turkey over the last two weeks, what started off as a series of protests throughout the country over different issues has turned into one main protest. One protest, staged in the Turkish capital Ankara, turned into kissing demonstrations outside subway stations. The ‘Kiss-protest’ was against plans to forbidden public displays of intimacy (kissing) on the Turkish subway network. Another protest – which was in Istanbul was against plans to turn historic building into shopping malls. The Turkish police overacted to these peaceful protests and began using water cannons, stick beatings and arresting people excessively. The police did so on the instructions of Prime Minister Erdogan, who described the demonstrators as ‘looters’. The protest got bigger as a result and they have turned into a revolt against Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism.

On the face of it, before these protests, politically Turkey was in the strongest position it has ever been in. Used as a model for ‘Muslim-democracy’ by Western nations, Turkey was seen as a ‘light onto the nations’ for neighbouring Arab states. Geo-politically, Turkey had few challenges – Turkey’s large economy and large population has given it advantages over neighbouring states. Greece is gone – as a military, economic and political threat to Turkey – Turkey’s economy continues to grow while Greece suffocates under enormous debt. Iran is a limited threat – the Turkish economy is twice the size of the Iranian economy; despite having similar population numbers, Turkey’s birth-rate is much higher than Iran. The average Turkish woman has 2.1 children, meaning Turkey’s population will continue to grow steadily. By contrast, Iran has seen a dramatic fall in its birth-rate, the average Iranian women has 1.2

children – which is down from 3.9 twenty-years ago, one of the fastest demographic drops in history. Iraq is weak, Israel is also weakening and the war with the PKK, which threatened the internal stability of the Turkish state, came to an end. PKK fighters moved out of the Turkish mountains and into northern Iraq following an agreement between the Turkish government and PKK’s imprisoned leader Ocalan.

With one the world’s fastest growing economies and 50% of the Turkish electorate voting for him, Erdogan was in a strong position at home. However, he got over-confident and became less willing to listen and compromise. Many of the protestors come from the 50% that did not vote for him. They are concerned with his increasingly authoritarian style of governance, and some even refer to him as a ‘fascist’.

Who are the protestors and what do they want?

Some of the protestors are right-wing Republican nationalist (Ataturkist), others are left-wing, feminist & LGBT activists. However, to class this as a ‘secular’ revolt against ‘Islamist authoritarianism’ would be a huge mistake. Most of the protestors have no specific ideology, others would consider themselves centrists and other Islamists, as well as Kurdish nationalists. The portfolio of demonstrators is diverse, their main concerns are Erdogan authoritarianism and his neo-liberal reforms. However, these two concepts mean different things to different groups in the protests.

Some are from the Turkish elite/bourgeoisie and their anger at neo-liberal reforms has a lot to do with the moving away of wealth from their sector of society, to small and medium size businesses in Central Anatolia. Merchants from Central Anatolia have gained in political and economic importance since the AKP party came to power. Many of the conservative reforms proposed by the AK party are quite popular with this base. Erdogan has called on many of them to stage-counter protests against the anti-Erdogan demonstrations. There are signs of deep divisions within Turkish society, not all of the political establishment backs Erdogan over his handling of the protestors.

Erdogan told the protestors to ‘go home’ and if you ‘don’t like it’ you can express your opinions at the next election and ‘vote against me’. However, these comments were rebuffed by Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who told Erdogan that democracy is not just about elections, the people have a right to express themselves through protest. He also condemned the crackdown of protestors by the security services. President Gul is from the same party as Erdogan, indicating splits within the party as well as the government. Erdogan’s rhetoric is a cause for alarm, and he is un-wittily revealing the ‘other side’ of the ‘Turkish success’ story. The protests will continue, but it is not a ‘Turkish spring’ as most of the protestors are not seeking to topple the whole government. They may be looking to topple Mr Erdogan if he does not make concessions, but that is a different story.

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