A moment of decision for Turkey’s democratic future

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered riot police to clear protestors from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the heart of the Turkey’s recent nationwide protest movement.

protesters at taksim square in turkey 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
protesters at taksim square in turkey 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After 12 days of demonstrations, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered riot police to clear protestors from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the heart of the Turkey’s recent nationwide protest movement.
In a televised speech before members of his ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), or AKP, Erdogan declared he will show “no more tolerance” for the demonstrations.
“Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists,” promised a bellicose Erdogan.
Unlike the prime minister, several senior AKP officials understand that most of those protesting in city squares across Turkey are aggrieved citizens, not “provocateurs” and “terrorists.” They also realize that these citizens have created a new oppositional politics based on civil society and pluralist consensus, which is unlikely to disappear even if demonstrations cease. Should popular discontent with the increasingly truculent Erdogan continue to widen, the prime minister may face a showdown within his own party.
During the protests, senior AKP officials revealed a telling discomfort with Erdogan’s politics of polarization, exploiting Islam to pit “black Turks” (the more socially conservative, lowermiddle and working class Sunni Turks from Anatolia) against “white Turks” (non-religious, upper-class, urban elites). Erdogan’s demagoguery appears as an intentionally timed gambit aimed at increasing his political power.
According to AKP party rules, Prime Minister Erdogan, now in his third term, cannot run again as the party’s candidate for prime minister in 2015.
Erdogan has indicated an interest in being the AKP’s candidate in Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections. He would need to challenge Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, an AKP co-founder along with Erdogan.
With Turkey in the midst of drafting a new constitution, the office of the presidency has assumed a charged significance as Turkey considers replacing its parliamentary system with a presidential form of government. Erdogan has already indicated his preference for the new constitution to establish a presidency with broad executive powers.
To further his presidential ambitions, Erdogan has abandoned the AKP’s original commitment to greater government accountability and civic pluralism in favor of empowering his supporters through crony capitalism and mobilizing mass support among the “black Turks” by portraying himself as the defender of their Islamic sensibilities.
In the month prior the outbreak of protests, the AKP government implemented a series of polarizing measures for state enforcement of conservative religious mores. Concurrently, the conservative AKP deputy chairman and Erdogan ally Numan Kurtulmus declared a July 1 deadline for a draft constitution.
In this context, statements by certain high-ranking AKP officials during the first week of demonstrations may indicate a more pluralist-oriented faction within the AKP concerned to preserve the party’s original emphasis on liberal democracy. While Erdogan dismissed the protestors with the now infamous term “çapulcular” (plunders, looters), several key officials addressed them as citizens with a legitimate right to have their grievances heard.
The first figure to articulate this position was Abdullah Gül. On June 3, while Erdogan made an official visit to Morocco, President Gül assumed a markedly conciliatory tone. In contrast to Erdogan, Gül embraced the protests as a fundamental element of liberal democracy.
“Democracy does not only mean elections,” Turkey’s president told the press, adding “the messages delivered with good intentions have been received.”
When questioned about Gül’s remarks by reporters in Morocco, the visibly annoyed Erdogan responded by saying that “the ballot box expresses the will of the people.” With regard to Gül’s public reassurance that the demonstrators’ message had been received, Erdogan caustically remarked, “When he says he received the message, I cannot say I know the content of the message.”
President Gül was not the only AKP senior figure to break ranks with the prime minister. Apologizing to protesters for police excesses, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç followed Gül’s rhetorical lead and stressed the importance of dissent in a liberal democracy.
“We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people,” Arinç declared. “Democracies cannot exist without opposition.” Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay similarly expressed sympathy toward the protestors in marked contrast the prime minister’s churlish remarks.
It would be a misreading to dismiss these statements as merely an AKP good cop/bad cop routine. Abdullah Gül represents an alternative sensibility within the AKP to the “white Turk-black Turk” demagoguery of Erdogan. Born in Kayseri, central Anatolia, Gül hails from the heartland of the AKP’s core constituency while holding a doctorate in economics from Istanbul University.
The cosmopolitan Gül served as Erdogan’s foreign minister in the first AKP government. Advancing Turkey’s application for EU membership, Gül helped promote democratic reforms necessary to meet European standards. In 2007, Gül was elected president by the parliament after the AKP’s second electoral victory. Seeing the new president as a political and, perhaps ideological threat, Erdogan began removing many Gül associates from positions of importance.
As recent as February 2013, Erdogan removed a Gül supporter from an important provincial post in Gül’s native Kayseri. When the AKP-dominated parliament enacted a controversial law reducing punishments for matchfixing in the wake of a scandal involving major Turkish football clubs, President Gül broke party discipline on moral grounds and vetoed the legislation.
The law passed on a subsequent vote, overriding Gül’s veto. One of the dissenting AKP members who supported Gül’s veto was current Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç.
Arinç was one of the founders of the AKP along with Erdogan, Gül, and Cemil Çiçek. Deputy Prime Minister Arinç is a potential candidate to succeed Erdogan as prime minister in 2015. An ally of President Gül, Arinç is an outspoken critic against Erdogan’s agenda to establish a powerful presidency. Arinç is joined by his fellow deputy prime minister Besir Atalay.
After Gül assumed the presidency in 2007, Atalay was appointed interior minister and served in the post until 2011 when he became one of the four AKP deputy prime ministers. Erdogan may not have been able to order the brutal suppression of protestors had Atalay remained interior minister. With a doctorate in sociology, Atalay served in the cabinet of prime minister Turgut Özal. A transformational leader committed to liberal democracy, Özal initiated Turkey’s economic liberalization and the opening of its public sphere to religion.
As an Özal protégé, Atalay has a natural affinity for Gül’s orientation. Atalay is also close to Cemil Çiçek, current speaker of the Turkish parliament.
Speaker Çiçek heads the committee responsible for drafting Turkey’s new constitution. While socially conservative, Çiçek is a consensus-builder and has reached out to Turkey’s three opposition parties over the drafting new constitution.
To further his agenda, Erdogan would have to isolate Gül and make it politically costly for Arinç, Atalay and Çiçek to oppose him. By mobilizing more conservative Muslims through his politics of polarization, Erdogan may well succeed. The AKP’s 50 percent electoral support is contingent upon expanding economic growth and the absence of a centrist party which could siphon more moderate voters.
If Turkey’s summer of discontent threatens to change either of these two conditions, Erdogan will become a liability for the AKP. The future of Turkey’s Islamic political discourse and, with it, Turkey’s development of liberal democracy depend on the political courage and vision within the AKP as well as within Turkey’s protest movement. Otherwise, Turkey’s next democratic elections may simply be a majoritarian instrument to implement an anti-pluralistic, Islamist reconstruction of Turkish society.
The author is a Fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, where he conducts research on Islamic pluralism and democratization. He also teaches Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University.