The outbreak of mass protests in Taksim Square on June 1, 2013 represents the most severe political challenge to AKP political hegemony since Erdogan’s ascension to power in 2002. While the protests were triggered by a dispute over the AKP government’s proposed construction of Ottoman-style military barracks in Gezi Park, the unrest in Turkey represents a culmination of years of deep-seated opposition to Erdogan among various groups in Turkish society. This is not just an ephemeral display of displeasure with the AKP regime.
The upsurge in public dissatisfaction towards the AKP originated from a plethora of grievances that include Erdogan’s authoritarian style of governance, his enforcement of Islamist social norms, the disconnect between AKP policies and the interests of minorities such as the Kurds, Allevis and Alawis, and the security threat posed by the Syrian civil war.
Muzzling freedom of expression
The Turkish government has escalated its violations of human rights in recent years ostensibly due to its desire to combat internal enemies and to avoid a military coup (four coups took place before 1997; 2 coups attempts took place in 2003 and 2007).While coup plots are a threat to Turkish democracy and its accession to the EU, AKP anti-militarism has perhaps been equally detrimental to these objectives.Erdogan’s regime has exploited these concerns to legitimize human rights abuses and the stifling of free expression: Turkey has indeed the world’s largest population of imprisoned journalists and places 138th on the World Press Freedom Index.
Furthermore, Erdogan has clearly manifested his ambition to increase Islam’s regulating role on Turkish society and creates a ‘pious generation’ that strictly follows Islamic norms. The AKP repelled the headscarf ban on Turkish university students, and Erdogan attempted to curb the sale of alcohol and ban lipstick for flight attendants. Unsurprisingly, these policies have enraged secularists and CHP supporters who want to maintain a principled distance between Islam and the state – a philosophy in line with Ataturk’s vision.
At peace with the neighbours?
Turkey aspires to be a regional leader and an exemplary model of governance for fledgling Arab democracies, characterized by liberal democracy, robust economic growth and internal political stability. However, Turkey’s credibility as a moral and political model for the Arab world and AKP’s “zero problems with our neighbours” policy have been jeopardized by Turkey’s incoherent response to the Syrian conflict. On the one hand, Turkey has been perceived as being supportive of the anti-Assad forces. This has alienated Iran, Iraq, as well as the 500,000 Turkish Alawis who fear sectarian violence in a Sunni Syrian government. On the other hand, Turkey has shown great unwillingness to make a substantial contribution to the struggle against Assad due to internal opposition for a Turkish intervention. Meanwhile, the May 11 Reyhanli car bombings near the Syrian border, which were the deadliest terrorist attacks in Turkey’s history, have increased fears of a spillover of the Syrian conflict into Turkey.
What to expect
The Arab Spring demonstrated that merely upholding the neo-patrimonialist social contract, which consists of providing economic security in exchange for supporting the regime is not a bulwark against revolution. Erdogan’s future is not solely dependent on maintaining rapid economic growth, especially considering that Turkey’s GDP growth rate has declined sharply to 3% in 2012, a percentage lower than that of Egypt prior to the ouster of Mubarak.
However, despite the protests, the AKP’s broad-based popular legitimacy (as evidenced by its landslide victory in the 2011 elections), combined with the lack of a viable opposition party, ensures that the AKP coalition is unlikely to fracture ahead of the 2014 election cycle. Ultimately, just as regime responses were the most important determining factor in regime survival during the Arab Spring, continued AKP dominance will require a more accommodative approach to the people’s grievances.
– Samuel Ramani
Featured photo: kaannizo, Creative Commons, Flickr