A wave of political discontentment is spreading fast, and the Taksim square is being heralded as Turkey’s “Tahrir” square. Comparisons are being made between them and questions are being raised about Turkey’s future under the incumbent conservative government. There is no denying that thousands of Turkish people are expressing their genuine discontentment over the incumbent government’s foreign and domestic policies, and that the protests are gaining tempo across the country. And, it is a fact that they are demanding Erdogan’s resignation. It is also a fact that Turkey is entering a phase of low economic growth and that its growth rate has declined from almost 8 percent in 2010-2011 to 2.9 percent in 2012-2013. In other words, echoes of the rapidly brewing political and economic turmoil can obviously be heard along the protestors’ slogans.
Notwithstanding all these facts; however, little attention is being paid to the inner dynamics of the Turkish society and to the peculiar composite nature of these protests. The protests have just begun to develop and they are at too early a stage to be declared as having the potential of leading Turkey to an “Arab Spring” like transformation. On the other hand, we cannot also categorically conclude, at this stage, that Turkey will not face “Arab Spring.” However, there are number of significant related facts which should be taken into account before drawing any conclusion(s). These factors lend a certain degree of peculiarity to the Turkish case and enable us to appreciate it on its own values and ground realities.
First of all, one must keep in mind the one basic difference between Turkey and the other countries that underwent political transformation. In the case of Turkey, as opposed to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where there were decades’ long dictatorships, there is an elected government in place that did win a public mandate in the general elections of 2011 and has won even in the past as well. (The Justice and Development Party won around 50% of total votes in 2011 elections, and it has consistently and convincingly won the last three general elections.) In other words, the Turkish government is not facing the crisis of legitimacy as was the case in other countries. Although protests are spreading, they are still far from beating the elected government’s public mandate. This constitutes a ‘massive’ source of strength for the government. And although people are clamouring against him and his government, Erdogan’s party is still fully integrated, and there is no other popular leader or even a political party which can challenge him. This factor has both positive and negative aspects. The positive point is that it would prevent Turkey from falling into political instability as well as keep the military from interfering. On the other hand, it might also make Erdogan behave rather arrogantly and make him use power out of bounds.
Secondly, Turkey’s societal texture and its history distinguish it from other countries. With its long tradition of modernity, pluralism, secularism and democracy – however flawed and immature it might be – Turkey has the inner mechanisms to balance its own excesses of power. Its example can be found in the country’s President Abdullah Gül’s statement, in which he expressed this very balancing mechanism of Turkish politics saying that the people had given the politicians a clear message, and the politicians should take these well-intentioned messages into account in order to accommodate them lest these protests should be hijacked by the extremist groups and turn violent. This statement equally reflects, though meager, the presence of alternative political voices within Turkey’s political framework. Similarly, Erdogan’s consequent challenge to the protestors to beat his party in the upcoming elections also shows the Turkish society’s balancing forces at work. This is markedly different from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya where there was hardly any leader of such a significant authority as President Gül who could have come to the front and share the masses’ woes, or that the dictators in these countries could have challenged, as Erdogan is doing, the protestors to beat them in elections.
Thirdly, these protests, though occurring against the backdrop of politico-economic problems, have not yet shown any signs of turning into a revolution. Although people are demanding the resignation of the government, they are not yet organized enough to set up an alternative government that can represent their aspirations and interests. The reason for the lack of organization is the fact that this is not a struggle for power, but a gigantic movement of the masses crying out its grievances and wanting to remove from power what it sees as the cause of its problems, the Erdogan Government. In simple words, the aim of this movement is not to bring about a change of the entire regime leading to framing a new constitution (as happened in Egypt), but only to change the government which was elected two years ago. The idea of the movement’s aim can be had from its seemingly unifying slogans: “Erdogan resign!” or “the government resign!” A mere change of government does not mean a change of system; and governments do often change and are forced to resign.
Fourthly, as in almost all cases of the sort of revolutionary changes occurring in the Middle East and North Africa during last few years, the uprising in Turkey is also a spontaneous one uncontrolled by any single political party or social organization. This is both a source of strength and weakness. This is strength at this early stage because people tend to join such movements out of any fear of being manipulated by any political party. But this is weakness in the long term; for, if the movement was to turn into a revolution (Arab Spring?), this could only triumph under the leadership of one or more political parties having the support of the masses. Although it seems that major opposition parties are inching towards making an alliance against Erdogan, it is yet improbable that they would succeed in unifying the heterogeneous politico-ideological orientation of the movement or succeed in turning it into a genuine popular uprising supported by the majority, as shown in a public survey held by Hurriyet Daily News that 70 percent of the protesters insisted they did not “feel close” to any political party.
Fifthly, the movement is far from homogeneous both in class terms and politico-ideological orientation. The square has become an arena for clashing worldviews: an unyielding leader’s top-down, neo-Ottoman, conservative vision of the nation as a regional power versus a bottom-up, pluralist, disordered, primarily young, less Islamist vision of the country as a modern democracy. As for political orientation, there are two broad categories: one is immersed in modern Western liberalism, and the other is dominant Turkish nationalist tendency, ranging from Kemalist associates to the Turkish socialist and revolutionary forces who are skilled in street fighting but lack the political acumen and vision for the ‘new’ Turkey. Similarly, the aspirations of these three tendencies are very different from one another, though not diametrically opposed. They view Turkey’s problems from different perspectives divided along the pro-EU and the pro Eurasian schools of thought. And, as far as class composition is concerned, one can easily assess that it is a multi-class movement, largely composed of urban middle and upper-middle class. It has both advantages and disadvantages. Its advantage is that multi-class composition tends to accommodate the shared views and makes possible the emergence of common goals. Its disadvantage is that failure to form a common goal causes ultimate failure of the entire movement. On the other hand, it should also be kept in mind that the working class has not yet thrown its organized weight behind the movement or even put forth its demands, although it is not oblivious to the movement. And then there is the Kurdish factor as well. It would be of crucial importance, if not decisive, if the Kurds were to decide to join the movement. However, according to the latest news, they seem to have shown their inclination to accept Erdogan’s “peace process.” And, although the working class has not so far thrown its weight behind this movement, it would not be able to remain aloof from this movement for long. And already it has started to show its increasing tendency towards properly joining the gradually ‘swelling’ mass movement.
In the light of the factors discussed here, one thing becomes quite clear: Turkey’s is a political turmoil and it is yet to become a popular uprising; it is a sort of revolt which is quite a few yardsticks away from becoming a revolution. One important factor, which is also not being given due consideration, is that there is an elected government at the center, and that it still enjoys support from the majority of its voters. As long as the Turkish government continues to have this popular support, it would not only remain a legitimate government but also feel ‘justified’ in using force against the protestors. The movement, too, is lacking crucial ingredients of a revolution. It lacks a central and a unifying ideology, as also a popular leader. It is for this reason that the protestors are trying to reinvent the past; trying to revive Mustafa Kemal’s Turkey. Their new slogan “true heirs of nation’s founding father” is indicative of their desperate efforts of resorting to the past, as also to present a unifying platform to win more public support.
On the other hand, the opposition is far from strong enough to challenge the government and present itself as an alternative platform. It lacks the capacity to accommodate and unify the competing worldviews the Taksim Square is expressing in one form or the other. It is for this reason that unless a party or a leader emerges and presents an acceptable alternative to fill the vacuum, Erdogan’s government would remain intact. Although there were no national leaders in the case of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, there was immense international pressure, apart from the unity of the masses, upon these states’ heads, which is also, to-date, missing in the case of Turkey. But it cannot be said that the protests would die out because of these deficiencies. Erdogan has been successfully ruling Turkey, but compromise is not something which he can do best. And, although his party won 50% of votes and his voters are still found denouncing these protests as the last throes of the disgruntled secularists, there is the other half of the population which is also expressing its anguish and discontentment and struggling to put an end to its political alienation. Erdogan’s government would have to accommodate them in the end, or else he might lose the support of his voters, too, leading to his ultimate downfall.