What started as a protest against a plan to turn Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a shopping mall has morphed into something far bigger : large-scale nation-wide demonstrations bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets in a number of Turkish cities. The protests are certainly large enough to raise an important question. Will they mark the beginning of the end of the 12-year rule of Turkey’s Justice and Democracy Party (AKP)-led government and inflict a fatal blow to the political aspirations of its charismatic leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ? That this question is even being raised is itself significant.
The clear target of protests has been the prime minister, a politician more used to leading the masses than confronting them. Erdoğan’s response has so far been surprisingly inadequate. His position that reconversion plans for the park must go on appeared out of touch. His references to “looters” in the streets sounded insulting to people from all walks of life who had gathered in Turkish cities. And his admission that the police used excessive force was tardy.
Conveniently dismissed by Erdoğan as a bunch of secularist-leftist agitators, most protestors are ordinary citizens belonging to the fast-growing urban middle classes that Erdoğan has played such an important role in creating. Many of them have been AKP supporters and are conservative Turks. What they are demanding is a more participatory democracy, an end to efforts to engineer society from the top, and above all, respect. They do not want to feel insulted by their prime minister for their views or lifestyles. Demonstrators are so non-ideological that their slogans have often been borrowed from football stadiums and the protests themselves have been led by football fan clubs. Erdoğan, it seems, is losing the forest for the trees in Gezi Park.
While the demonstrations remind many observers of the Arab Spring, Turkey is no Egypt and Erdoğan no Mubarak. He is a democratically elected leader who is increasingly intolerant of dissent. As his rule provides material benefits to large swaths of the Turkish population, it remains likely that Erdoğan’s party could still win the next elections. On the other hand, the demonstrations may in part be a response to Erdoğan’s plans to introduce a presidential system of government. The ongoing protests risk substituting for a referendum on the proposed new system.
The demonstrations may have other effects on Turkish politics and society. The AKP is not assured of effortlessly winning the upcoming municipal elections in Istanbul and other cities. Various signature projects, from Istanbul’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games to the ongoing process of ending decades of PKK violence through negotiations, could be derailed if events escalated in a way to tarnish the image of Turkey abroad and weaken the position of its leaders at home.
As Erdoğan and his entourage strive to fight back against this popular backlash, other stakeholders are forced to position themselves. Among possible winners is President Abdullah Gul. On the first statement he made on June 2, Gul invited the government to listen more carefully to the Turkish people’s demands. In a second statement on June 3, he reminded people that “democracy is not just about elections.” As the more moderate counterpart to Erdoğan, Gul may come out stronger from the crisis. A bid for his presidential reconfirmation could not be ruled out in the emerging context.
The “Service Movement” popularly known as the Gulen Movement, traditionally a supporter of AKP, also distanced itself from the government. Media outlets belonging to the faith-based group provided coverage of the demonstrations when other mainstream media outlets preferred self-censorship. Some prominent figures of the Gulen Movement were openly supportive of the demonstrations, using social media to connect with protestors.
But members of the Gulen Movement were not alone among conservatives in disapproving of Erdoğan’s approach. Other conservative opinion leaders — including pro-AKP ones — expressed their disapproval. In fact, the spontaneous character of the movement and its diversity are potentially the more politically consequential aspects of the unfolding crisis.
Although nobody yet knows if the demonstrations will come to an end or continue, they already offer some lessons. They are teaching Turkish conservative leaders that selective modernity is not an option. At some point, people will ask for more than access to material well-being and the protection of conservative values. Demonstrations also teach Turkey’s partners in Europe and in the United States to look more closely and critically at what has often been superficially propounded as the “Turkish model.” It is an imperfect model and its fragility should be a reason for concern as well as hope. Turkey’s influence and attractiveness in its neighborhood hinge on its continuing ability to change. But that change ultimately has to follow people’s demands and cannot be imposed from above.