It is tempting to see in the Turkish protests a struggle between an Islamic government and a secular opposition, or between Islam and democracy, or maybe even between conservatives and progressives. It is all the more tempting considering the media’s tendency to reduce any confrontation that happens almost anywhere in the world to a struggle between two clear-cut and well-defined gangs. But reality is generally more complicated, and the recent events in Turkey are no exception.
It started with a peaceful sit-in in Istanbul’s Gezi Park with tents, singing and dancing, launched by 100-odd activists to prevent authorities from dismantling one of the only green areas in the heart of the city for the sake of an urban development project. But the police raided the park, used tear gas and water cannons to force the peaceful activists out of the area.
Images of the police brutality spread like wildfire across social media. As a result, hundreds of supporters rushed to the area and helped regain control of the park. Again, the police crackdown that followed fueled more anger and bought more people to the streets. What had started as a peaceful sit-in against the uprooting of a few trees soon turned into country-wide political demonstrations against the Turkish government.
Many of the protesters claimed to have no specific ideology; they are rather a disparate bunch of people cutting across ideological, religious and class lines. There are nationalists, environmentalists, LGBT-rights advocates, Armenians, Kurds, anarchists, atheists and believers, and a lot best descriped simply as angry citizens. Many explained they were demonstrating for the first time in their lives.
A struggle against authoritarianism
The fact that the majority of protesters are middle-class and secular does not necessarily mean it is a secular demonstration against a religious-conservative government. Furthermore, the recently imposed restrictions on the selling, promotion and consumption of alcohol should not necessarily be seen through the lens of religion. In fact, the selling of alcohol already had been similarly restricted in many European countries as well as in the United States. Prohibiting the selling of alcohol after a certain hour and in the vicinity of schools could be seen as a matter of public order, not necessarily a religious one.
Nor is it a struggle for ‘democracy,’ per se. Erdogan has won three successive elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011, with his AK party taking a rising share of the vote. His government has embarked on sweeping domestic reforms that persuaded the European Union to open membership talks in 2005, and managed to reduce the army’s influence on political life. The prime minister also managed to reposition Turkey as a regional power with global ambitions, and has done more than any of his predecessors to settle matters with the country’s 15 million Kurds.
That said, Erdogan clearly does not completely adhere to the rules of democracy, having jailed journalists and attempted to restrict personal freedoms. Much of the demonstrators’ anger appeared directed at what critics say is his aggressive and authoritarian style of governing. There are many, including in his own party, who disapprove of his authoritarianism. But it is undeniable that he is heading a democratically elected government. In this sense, the protests in Turkey are not a “Turkish spring.”
The government’s handling of the economy is not to be blamed either: in its almost 11 years under AK governance, Turkey has achieved unprecedented economic success, transforming a crisis-hit economy into a rapidly growing one, fueled by trade and foreign investment. In the past ten years, GDP per capita has tripled, exports have increased nearly tenfold and foreign direct investment has climbed.
Of course, more recently, the crisis hitting Europe meant the Turkish economy slowed down. And the other face of Turkey’s economic miracle is that many of the unemployed and poor increasingly feel marginalized as income inequality widens. But on the whole, and compared to most countries in Europe, the Turkish economy is still doing fine. In this sense, many observers dismissed the term “Indignados” to refer to the Turkish protesters.
But the Indignados of Spain, for example, are reacting not only to socioeconomic problems, budget cuts and austerity measures. They are also protesting against the lack of accountability and responsibility of the government. What the Spanish Indignados want is not simply a change in the way the economy is managed; they want more generally to be listened to, their views taken into account. They have the feeling that decisions are always being made somewhere else, that the government fails to consider or even hear the average citizen’s concerns. The Indignados want respect for who they are.
And this is exactly what is the Turkish demonstrators are asking for: to be heard and considered.
Resentment has been smoldering over the government’s big construction projects, ranging from a third bridge over the Bosporus that will entail the felling of thousands of trees, to a canal from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. To many demonstrators, destroying one of Istanbul’s public parks represents a much larger government trend of pushing development and modernization at the expense of the environment and the people’s actual wants.
These projects are often rammed through with a dismissive lack of public consultation. In this sense, the destruction of the Gezi Park is symbolic: Many inhabitants from Istanbul have memories of the park, they are attached to the little green area it constitutes. And they don’t want the government to confiscate public space for private interests. “Prime Minister Erdogan thinks he is a sultan, he does not listen to anybody, consult with anybody,” said one of the demonstrators. “He thinks he can do whatever he wants.”
Demonstrators also perceive some policies of the AK party as, if not a direct prohibition, an intolerant us-versus-them disapproval of their lifestyles. “We are here for our freedom, for a space to breathe. We are here to be able to kiss in public, consume alcohol, read without any censorship. We are here for a life without any pressure from the State,” another protester said.
And then, of course, there is the way the authorities reacted to the peaceful sit-in in Gezi Park. The heavy-handed crackdown by the police, the prime minister calling them “looters” and dismissing them as “marginal” made them feel even more, well, marginalized. Like in some countries in Europe, Turkish citizens are protesting against a lack of government transparency, the arrogance shown towards them and their fundamental freedoms. It is a rebellion against a lack of consideration, and has nothing to do with any ideology.
It is striking to see how common it has become for people across the Western world to resort to street demonstrations. Protests increasingly appear a more viable option than elections. Demonstrators demand unmediated attention from political leaders who, once elected, increasingly disregard public opinion. In Turkey, as in Spain, opposition parties are far from bringing these demands into the political arena and so an entire segment of viewpoints and concerns go unrepresented.
Democracy is not only about elections. It is about elected governments ruling in the name of the people, for the sake of the people and the common good. It is about political leaders being accountable to those who elect them. Failure to do so leads to a crisis of governance, and people take to the streets.