David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
As a journalist based in Turkey for 25 years I'm used to the unexpected. But as with the majority of the Turkish population, the speed with which the ongoing protests against the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan exploded from being a small demonstration against the destruction of a tiny Istanbul park into major countrywide protests in which hundreds of thousands have spontaneously taken to the streets, took me by surprise.
Equally surprising, not to say frightening, has been the brutal response of the police. As a business reporter it had never occurred to me that I would ever require a gas mask, let alone find myself running from stick-wielding vigilantes, taking refuge from tear gas-firing riot police in a branch of Burger King, or crawling around the floor of my flat with two friends screaming and rubbing lemon juice into my eyes after a tear gas canister inexplicably exploded outside my bedroom window. I live a quiet life, or so I thought.
Environmental demonstrations in Turkey are not usually headline news, least of all for major international media outlets. But a combination of extraordinarily vicious policing, together with staggering inept and insensitive comments from Erdogan and some of his senior ministers and officials have ensured that a small protest against the destruction of a tiny Istanbul park has exploded into major countrywide protests in which hundreds of thousands have spontaneously taken to the streets, making it a news story of international import.
These protests not only highlight the increasingly authoritarian and worryingly Islamist nature of Erdogan's government, but have also thrown into question Turkey's long-mooted role as a model of parliamentary democracy to be followed by Middle Eastern countries newly emerged from under the boot of brutal dictatorship.
With Erdogan having now publicly denied previously announced plans to destroy the park, the protests have become largely focused on the nature of his government's response to them, not to say his own plans to rewrite the Turkish constitution to allow him to be elected as president with executive powers. This would be a role which observers note closely models that of the Middle Eastern regimes whose downfall two years ago Erdogan was - albeit somewhat slower than his western counterparts - quite happy to herald as an opportunity for the establishment of genuine representational democracy.
This is only one of a number of glaring contradictions in an administration now in its third term and displaying all the symptoms of a regime devoid of ideas and ambition beyond tightening its grip on power and punishing those who fail to adhere to its own narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Indeed, as the events of the past few weeks have unfolded, it has become increasingly difficult to recognize this as the government of the same Justice and Development Party (AKP) that was elected in 2002 on the promise of safe stewardship of the economy and of improving the quality of Turkish democracy.
Now having effectively ended the role of the Turkish military as the ultimate arbiter of political legitimacy through a series of widely criticized "show trials," Erdogan and his party have apparently turned their attention to that part of Turkish society which does not support it. "If you listen to the prime minister, he uses quite worrisome and antagonizing terminology when speaking to his supporters - he keeps referring to 'they, they, they'. This is very unhealthy for democracy," says Cengiz Aktar Professor of Political Science and a columnist on the broadly anti-government daily Taraf, pointing out that the "they" in question appears to refer to anyone Erdogan considers to be opposed to his government.
With much of Turkey's mainstream media either directly controlled by the state or owned by companies either closely connected to the AKP or apparently beholden to the AKP, criticism of this change of focus has, until the recent spontaneous protests, been muted to say the least. "We can safely say that there is no single check or balance left which can balance the power of Mr Erdogan - all existing institutions have been stripped of their power," says Aktar.
It has been left to protesters on the streets to denounce recently passed laws banning any form of promotional activity by companies producing alcoholic drinks, banning the sale of alcohol from shops after 10:00pm, and effectively demonizing companies engaged in what are still legal manufacturing activities; laws passed - but later rejected by the constitutional court - limiting women's access to abortion and caesarean section, a personal call by Erdogan himself for all Turkish women to "have three children for Turkey;" and in response to the continuing protests, mooted but yet undefined legislation aimed at restricting or limiting the use of social media by protesters.
All of which begs the question of where exactly Turkey is going and whether it's long hoped-for accession to the EU can ever be realised.
To date, the protests have been mainly confined to educated middle- and working-class Turks who hold down responsible jobs and take to the streets at weekends, minimizing the effect on the economy. "The protests are mostly evening and weekend affairs, because those protesting are educated, tech savvy, middle class, white collar workers who have responsible day jobs - they have a stake in the economy, they're not trying to undermine it," explains Inan Demir, chief economist at Turkey's Finansbank.
But that is not to say that the continuing protests present no risk for the Turkish economy. "Turkey has $150bn of debt maturing in the year beginning next April and so is particularly vulnerable to any retrenchment in liquidity and risk appetite," he cautions.
As such the size and severity of protests can be expected to decline over the summer as many leave the cities on summer holidays. But with current evidence suggesting the government will use the intervening lull to further antagonize those already angry with its policies, a resurgence of protests in the autumn seems likely. However, whether what have to date been grassroots protests can succeed in creating a credible broad-based movement for change is still debatable.
Dissent within the AKP itself though seems unlikely to force a change of tack or a change of leader. Turkish President and AKP founder Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc may not share Erdogan's taste for confrontation or his hunger for an executive presidency, but they appear unlikely to challenge him. Erdogan also appears unlikely to garner parliamentary support to help implement an executive presidency in time for next year's presidential election, and will likely have to choose between standing for election as non-executive president or amending AKP statutes to allow him and his senior ministers to serve more than the three parliamentary terms they are currently limited to, nominating someone else to stand for president.
What does appear clear is that barring more surprises, the AKP's electoral support will decline in next year's scheduled local elections, as well as in the general elections scheduled for 2015, but which could end up being called early next year. "It seems unlikely that parliamentary elections will be called this year, with the focus instead on local elections in March 2014, and presidential elections in July 2014. PM Erdogan seems likely to run in the presidential elections, and could then look to reinforce the AKP's grip by calling early parliamentary elections possibly for autumn 2014. Thus, 2014 is shaping up to be a key year for elections," says Tim Ash of Standard Bank, who visited Turkey in June, meeting with AKP government officials, the central bank, the undersecretary of the Treasury, the International Monetary Fund, a range of Turkish banks and industrial groups, foreign diplomats, as well as foreign and local journalists.
According to Professor Aktar, the whole electoral process seems to have been subsumed to the aims of one man, Prime Mininster Erdogan, and that individual mayoral candidates in next year's elections will be effectively irrelevant. "He has accumulated so much power, he will effectively be the sole candidate even in the local elections," Aktar says.
Many Turks who voted AKP largely on its handling of the economy have been shocked by recent events and Erdogan's increasingly shrill authoritarianism, and might be persuaded to vote for other parties in protest. The main beneficiary appears likely to be the main secular opposition party, the Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), despite the relative anonymity of party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and its worrying lack of clarity on main policy issues. However the signs are, barring unforeseen events, the AKP will remain the largest party, albeit possibly without an overall majority.
The hardline taken by the government and its subsequent rhetoric has prompted the EU, at the behest of Germany, to postpone the restart of EU-Turkey accession talks from June 26 until at least October. The European Commission's annual progress report in October is expected to contain strong condemnation of the brutal crackdown on the protests, and with successive reports highlighting strong criticism of the government's failure to meet expected standards of democracy, the question remains how long the EU can be expected to continue the process.
Ultimately, it appears increasingly that the success of Turkey's European project lies not with existing politicians, but with those Turks who have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to a flawed political process that has failed to address their hopes and aspirations.
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