Open Democracy: Turkey’s Gezi Park episode is far from over – Burak Kadercan

Paradoxically, Gezi Park presented Erdoğan with a golden opportunity, one that could also have helped Turkish democracy part company from the tendency of powerful political parties to drift into populism-fuelled authoritarianism.

For the global media what happened in Gezi Park throughout June is now old news. Not so much for the citizens of Turkey. Gezi still remains the single most salient reference point for politics and, more than ever, everyday life. Make no mistake, post-Gezi, the genie is out of the bottle and not only refuses to return, but also cannot be fully contained by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP.

Under the radar of the global media, both AKP and its critics are whispering of a possible second round in September, when town dwellers and students return to the cities that gave rise to the protests in the first place. Put simply, the process that was triggered in Gezi Park is far from over. How it unfolds will quite literally determine the fate of Turkish democracy, which can either survive the ordeal and emerge stronger than ever or submerge into a political winter that will be marked by an ever-increasing authoritarianism as well as a residual yet constant risk of large-scale political violence.

When majoritarian democracy meets pluralism

What happened on the ground is now common knowledge. By late-May, a small group of protestors who opposed the destruction of Gezi Parkı in Istanbul’s Taksim Square (similarities to Tahrir are not only in name) faced police brutality, which had already become associated with the rather generous use of tear gas. “Gassing” of peaceful protesters hit a nerve and before anyone knew it, tens of thousands flocked to Taksim. As protests spread to almost every major city, Gezi Park was “occupied” by protestors for nearly two weeks, only to be “liberated” by the police through extensive use of gas. At least five people were killed during the protests, which still erupt somewhat sporadically across the country.

So, what was the Gezi experience all about? Put bluntly, it was merely the symptom of the real problem. The problem is AKP’s autocratic tendencies and its inclination to justify them by drawing upon its “fifty per cent,” which refers to the percentage of votes AKP secured in the general elections of 2011. AKP openly professes a majoritarian understanding of democracy (where the ballot box is the ultima ratio) at the expense of a pluralist understanding that recognizes the rights and liberties of a wide variety of social and political groups. This is hugely problematic for a simple reason: in a land that distinguishes itself for its diversity, the AKP’s position prompts the kind of polarizing effect that exerts considerable pressure on various members of the “other” fifty per cent.

Armed with the “silent” support of its fifty per cent and personified in Erdoğan’s patronizing as well as all-knowing style, AKP has become an agent of both imposition and intrusion not for all but most certainly some Turkish citizens. What is being imposed is a “change” in political and social life that, one way or another, contains references to religion or “conservative values,” which in turn make the more secular segments of the society uncomfortable. That intrusion accompanies imposition of the so-called change and best reveals itself in Erdoğan’s discursive style that has grown ever more disparaging, controlling, and devoid of any compassion for the very people who feel that their way of life is under attack.

The problem is exacerbated by another dynamic: Erdoğan does not take criticism lightly. Considering that the mainstream media has been cowed into “silence” – as exemplified by the infamous “penguin incident” where CNN-Turk chose to broadcast a documentary on penguins while international news channels were covering some of the fiercest clashes between protestors and the police – AKP’s critics had been feeling increasingly marginalized in the face of what they perceive to be the coming, to put it mildly, of a tyranny of the majority.

Such concerns do not arise merely from collective paranoia. Especially after the 2011 elections, AKP has been pushing the “other” fifty per cent on many issues that range from the education system (which is being restructured to create a “religious generation,” in Erdoğan’s words), women’s right to abortion, limitations on alcohol use, freedom of the press, and so on. In this context, while the fact that the discontent over AKP’s policies found itself an outlet in a small park is surprising, but that some segments of society finally took to the streets is not. The unprovoked use of “gas” on peaceful protestors in Gezi Park literally proved to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thanks to Gezi, AKP’s critics finally discovered that they still had a voice. Yet, it is still not clear what exactly they are saying. The protestors, who prefer to call their efforts simply “resistance,” are hailing from all walks of life and do not endorse a particular political party or a leader, taking pride in their heterogeneity and lack of leadership. These two characteristics have constituted an advantage for the protestors simply because together they stand as a testimony to the fact that Gezi was truly a spontaneous mass movement for pluralism that came with no political strings attached. Not used to dealing with “unconventional” political opponents, this also makes it difficult for Erdoğan to tackle the protestors. Heterogeneity and lack of leadership, however, also prevent the protestors from converging around a list of solid demands and proposals. Regardless, the so-called resistance – or, “Gezi spirit” – is still alive in its third month, if not exactly kicking at the moment.

AKP strikes back

Paradoxically, Gezi Park presented Erdoğan with a golden opportunity. If he were to approach the protests with compassion and defuse the situation by recognizing the underlying problem that led to them, he would have emerged from the crisis stronger than ever. Such a move not only would have alleviated the concerns of many of AKP’s critics, but would have also helped Turkish democracy part ways with the tendency of powerful political parties to drift into populism-fuelled authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, AKP has so far responded to the problem at hand not by trying to solve it, but by trying to repress the symptoms through the same mind-set that led to them in the first place. From the early days of Gezi, AKP has done its best to marginalize and criminalize the protests. AKP officials have traced the roots of the protests almost quite literally to ‘everywhere’, from domestic terrorist groups to “ a Jewish diaspora,” or from “Germany” to the mysterious “interest lobby,” but never to AKP’s own policies and discourses. In a most alarming move, Erdoğan stated that AKP was “barely restraining” its “silent” fifty per cent, who would presumably happily confront the protestors if the need arose.

As the protests subsided, AKP also set out to settle scores. The Koç family, who control almost ten per cent of the Turkish economy and who is generally applauded among protestors for granting them refuge in a Koç-owned hotel in Taksim, has been hit with investigations as well as the cancellation of government contracts. A stage actor whose tweets encouraged people to join the protests over Gezi (“because they were not only about the Park”) is now facing charges of up to twenty years for inciting armed rebellion against the regime. Well aware that protestors have made extensive use of new social media, AKP is also preparing new “internet safety regulations.” These regulations are even more alarming in the face of an older proposal that aims not only to amplify the operational powers of Turkey’s own central intelligence agency in the domestic sphere, but also to make it accountable solely to the prime minister by placing its actions outside the jurisdiction of “regular” courts of law.

Furthermore, AKP is increasing the presence of the police (as opposed to private security staff) on university campuses, where the risk of anti-AKP protests will run high when classes commence in September.

AKP’s reaction to Gezi also reaches out to everyday life. The practice of “playing pots” (making noise through kitchenware every night at 9pm in order to protest against the AKP), for example, now carries a fine of roughly 35 euros, which itself is justified as a means to prevent noise pollution. Note that Erdoğan has personally encouraged his followers to act as voluntary informers and bring pot-players to the authorities’ attention. Another example involves Turkey’s favourite obsession: football. Games in the national league, which are televised widely, are also expected to witness anti-AKP protests. In the face of this “threat,” AKP has initiated measures to ban “political” slogans in stadiums.

In sum, the lesson AKP seems to have derived from the Gezi episode is at great variance with the message that the protestors were trying to send. As opposed to recognizing the concerns of its critics, AKP is simply trying to suppress their newly-found voice.

Democratic catharsis versus political winter

More than two months ago, I wrote that the ball was in AKP’s court. If AKP genuinely accommodated its critics’ concerns, I argued, Turkish democracy would prosper, for such a move would steer Turkey out of the “majoritarian trap” and towards a pluralist understanding of democracy. Otherwise, I also claimed, Turkish democracy might slide into a political winter that would entail anything from an increasingly authoritarian political environment to political instability and civil strife. The ball is still in AKP’s court, but the window is much smaller now. With the wrong move, AKP may inadvertently push the country away from a true democratic “spring” and towards a peculiar “Turkish Winter.”

So, what is the rationale behind such pessimism? Some forty years ago, economic historian Geoffrey Blainey offered one of the most influential yet simple insights into the origins of major conflict: two actors will engage in conflict when they have a disagreement over their relative capabilities. Gezi protestors claim to be an unstoppable force while AKP acts as if it is an immovable object. These are not compatible trajectories and may collide again – this time with more experienced and determined participants on both sides – in the months ahead.

While the “Gezi spirit” has failed to spread to the wider population, it has also proven too salient and stubborn for AKP to suppress. The romanticism that triggered the protests and sustained them for months is keeping its spirit alive, allowing protestors to remain optimistic about the prospects of a renewed and rejuvenated “resistance” in the autumn. AKP, on the other hand, while unable to silence the Gezi spirit, is far from having been defeated and could still claim an electoral victory if the country were to hit the ballot box today. Moreover, Erdoğan seems determined not to accommodate his critics. His top lieutenant recently declared that the AKP had intercepted actionable intelligence about “major provocations” to come in September across campuses and stadiums, suggesting that the government is already gearing up for potential protests and providing justification for police intervention months in advance.

The key question is not whether the protests will succeed or not. It is how AKP will respond to the genie – or the “spirit” – that escaped the bottle. If AKP keeps to its current course, we will be looking at the coming of a Turkish Winter which entails two possible scenarios. In the first, AKP’s unaccommodating and repressive measures fuel a spiral: angrier as well as more radicalized protests incite harsher reactions from the government, and vice versa. This spiral will inadvertently and gradually lead to an environment where AKP will be compelled to institutionalize openly repressive and autocratic measures to contain the protests. An even worse scenario is one where neither the demonstrators nor AKP can control popular energies. While civil strife remains the less likely outcome, it would also be naïve to ignore this possibility, especially considering Turkey’s polarized political atmosphere where references to religiosity (versus secularism) are increasingly serving as fault lines that deeply divide the society.

In June, Erdoğan missed a golden opportunity that could have steered the country toward a democratic spring. Come this autumn, he will have to make a different choice: step on the brakes or push even further forward. If Erdoğan chooses the latter, what is to follow may or may not break the Gezi spirit, but it will most certainly mark the beginning of a long and harsh political winter in Turkey.

Burak Kadercan
11 August, 2013