The Turkish Defense of Democracy

by Mitchell Plitnick

The Turkish government and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have only themselves to blame for both the widening protests gripping Turkey, and the negative, sometimes distorted, global perception of what they’re doing to their people. The heavy-handed response to what was an isolated demonstration has blown the cork off a pressurized situation in Turkey. The attempted media blackout has only served to magnify global disgust and raised a simplistic view of a very complex dynamic.

The protest that sparked all of the upheaval was a small one. In a sign of the real, underlying issues, the Turkish police reacted to the sit-in at Gezi Park with a large show of force, which prompted expanding and spreading demonstrations. Almost immediately, Turkish activists took to social media, because, miraculously, the protests were completely invisible on most of the major networks in Turkey (as well as, shamefully, some of the international ones). Turkey isn’t Syria, and it’s doubtful that the media blackout — even within the country — was all that effective. You see, Mr. Prime Minister, there is this thing called the internet…

The comparisons to the “Arab Awakening” are somewhat exaggerated, but the dynamic in Turkey is significant for precisely that reason. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are legitimately in power. Erdogan is not a dictator, he has been elected three times in free and fair elections, and he’s won a bigger plurality each time. Erdogan and the AKP have, in the past, pushed reforms forward and managed a very solid economic recovery.

But in the past couple of years, more and more Turks, particularly those among the “other half” of Turkey that didn’t vote for the AKP in the last election, have grown more nervous. Three broad issues — growing authoritarianism from Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly partisan role as a regional leader and the heightened influence of religion in Turkish law — have been on a rolling boil in recent years and overflowed in the past week. The Gezi Park protest was merely the triggering point.

Turkey has long struggles with serious shortcomings on significant human rights issues. It is to the AKP’s credit that for much of its first two terms in power, it made strides with a number of them. Notably, upon their initial election, the AKP eased some restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture, and capitalized on the existing cease-fire to ease some of the tensions, although they have gradually risen anew ever since. The AKP brought in neo-liberal economic policies, and in this case they have worked to strengthen an economy that was in severe crisis not long ago. On the other hand, the press, never free, has been increasingly harassed recently.

The hugely excessive police response to the Gezi Park demonstration and subsequent protests cannot be disconnected from the arrogant and tone-deaf response to these events from Erdogan himself. Dismissing the protesters as thugs, radicals and “foreigners” served only to display the very root of the problem with Erdogan. After three successful elections, he believes he has a mandate to lead the country where he sees fit, and need not concern himself with the many millions of Turks who see things differently.

The Syrian uprising is another worrisome issue for many in Turkey. No doubt most would agree that Turkey has a legitimate interest in the outcome in Syria, but so do many states. The question is: what should it do in response to that interest? Many Turks are unhappy with their government’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and many are particularly concerned about what it means for Turkey’s regional policy. The AKP has a lot in common with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region, and has been supporting that piece of the Syrian rebel force. Thus, for many Turks, Turkish involvement in Syria has not just been about unseating Bashar al-Assad or protecting Turkey’s border, but advancing a regional agenda that, while certainly less worrisome than other religious ideologies fighting for supremacy in the Arab world, is not well aligned with Turkish values of secularism. This also casts a pall on what many Turks have been pleased to see as Turkey’s enhanced status in the region.

The increasing influence of religion has manifested itself in recent new laws restricting the sale of alcohol and public displays of affection. One of the points of pride for the AKP has been its ability to blend the strong secular tradition in Turkey with the rising influence of Islam in the country, but these laws have rekindled fears about Erdogan, who was imprisoned in his younger days because of his Islamist views.

Ultimately, all of this feeds into concerns about the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for 2014. Erdogan is hoping to amend the constitution to create a strong presidency that would replace the central position of the prime minister. And, of course, he very much hopes to be that president, a position he could hold for the subsequent decade. It is no wonder that so many in Turkey are concerned about Erdogan’s ambitions and willingness to cede power.

For all of these fears and matters of concern, though, it is important to keep in mind that Turkey is not Syria, nor is it Egypt or Libya. Erdogan is an elected leader, and he has gotten a lot of support in those elections. Whether he still has that support today, though, is a matter of some speculation.

At Al-Monitor, Barbara Slavin ascribes a lot of what has happened in Turkey to Erdogan overstaying his welcome in office. There is certainly a lot of truth in that point. It certainly explains the hubris of Erdogan’s reaction to the protests, the excessive force with which the protests were met from the outset and his attempts to marginalize such large swaths of the Turkish population.

But in some ways, Erdogan and the AKP are victims of their own success. Turkey under Erdogan has been praised by many (myself included) for the progress it made in integrating a large Islamist community with an overriding, and overwhelmingly popular, secular government. Turkey was being pointed to as the model for new governments in the Arab Awakening by some (many of whom, it’s fair to note, were in the US and Europe). As a result, Erdogan seems to have become convinced that it’s his economically and socially conservative base, and his party’s inclination toward a greater role for Islam in Turkish law, that should simply have its way because, after all, those with different ideas keep losing.

Hence these protests. Like those seen in recent years all over the world, including the United States, the groups are diffusive and diverse and there is no structured leadership. The demands are the same as well: more justice, more democracy. But the eagerness to label this as a “Turkish Awakening” misses the fact that Turkey, with all its very deep flaws, is a democracy. Erdogan is a legitimately elected leader, and he can still be voted out. Indeed, he may well have destroyed much of his own legitimacy with his reaction to these demonstrations and thereby endangered his own political future.

Turks are defending and trying to expand their democracy. Erdogan may well have become a threat to that democracy, but he has not destroyed it. The protesters want their press to be free, they want minorities to be fairly treated, they want the secularism that the government has been based on for years to endure (even while accommodating the large Islamist movement) and they want to make sure that even if a party wins a large plurality of the vote,  everyone else’s interests won’t become meaningless.

There is more here as well: an objection to the excesses of Erdogan’s neo-liberal policies, even while most Turks understand that the AKP has done a lot of good for the country’s economy. Add to that the continuing march toward democracy from a government that was once a religious empire and later a secular but unstable government that had far too many features of fascism, some of which still remain and are being used by Erdogan (once a victim of that very discrimination); these include the government’s intimidation of the press as well as the misuse of anti-terrorism laws and the harsh discrimination faced by the Kurds, Alevis and many leftists.

Turkey is facing the problems of its past mixed with ongoing growing pains of its very real democracy. The country should be supported, and the goals of the protests need to be recognized as noble ones. The government needs to be rebuked sufficiently to deter it from its violent and anti-democratic course. But Turkey should not be confused with Syria.

Photo: Protesters gather in Taksim Square in Istanbul, not far from Gezi Park, where protests were sparked last week against the government’s most recent urban redevelopment project. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.