The recent and continuing outbreak of discord in Turkey must have taken many members of the commentariat by surprise. Given the upheavals in a number of its neighbors, Turkey appeared in refreshing contrast to be almost a paragon of stability and prosperity. The Justice and Development Party also frequently referred to by it’s Turkish acronym AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) the winner of three consecutive elections in the last decade, had led Turkey to become the 18th largest global economy. This was a huge achievement which made Turkey not only a major player in the politics of the Middle East, but also an acknowledged leader of the Islamic world encompassing nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide. The fault lines-political, secular-conservative, ethnic and rural-urban- in Turkish society and politics which had been quiescent for the past decade or so under the successful AKP dispensation, now appear to have resurfaced. The leftist- rightist divide is an old one which pre- AKP governments had wrestled with but could not handle effectively. The resulting political dissonance in the previous decades created a vacuum which was filled in by the powerful Turkish army- the so called self appointed “guardians of the Kemalist revolution”. A major achievement of Recep Erdogan, Prime Minster and leader of the AKP, was to attenuate the power of the army and send it back to the barracks. Erdogan has also boldly conducted a trial of 60 senior Turkish army officers on charges of attempting to mount a coup against his elected government. So the army appears no longer to be a force in Turkish politics.
According to media reports a group of citizens in Istanbul, demonstrating peacefully against government plans to demolish a landmark park and a square and replace it by a mall and Ottomon era barracks, was tear gassed. This heavy handed approach galvanized the opponents of Erdogan who had quietly suffered the AKP’s noticeable shift towards conservative Islam, to come out in large numbers in open opposition to Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism. Erdogan has a solid bloc of supporters among conservative urban and rural classes in Turkey who constitute the numerical majority.The more secular Turks in the cosmopolitan parts of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and elsewhere, are opposed to the “Islamicisation” policies of the AKP. So what began ostensibly as a major disagreement on environmental issues, has gravitated towards a conservative – secularist divide. The secularists are fulminating against the AKP’s attempts to make Turkey conform to Islamic practices such as banning alcohol in public places etc. Other observers such as the Turkish writer Cemal Tansel has criticized the economic policies of privatization and economic liberalization adopted by the AKP as “authoritarian neoliberalism”. Calls for Erdogan’s resignation have been voiced by his opponents. These are cries in the wilderness as the AKP appears to be well entrenched. While Erdogan in the midst of this turmoil somewhat insouciantly took off for a foreign tour, the President and Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey have made emollient statements aimed at pacifying the anger of the demonstrators.
It is clear that Erdogan, confident of his political backing has overreached in using strong armed tactics against what began as a peaceful demonstration. When the numbers of the demonstrators swelled he was compelled to withdraw the police from Taksim square. His opponents have propagandized that action as a victory. One hopes that the unpleasant confrontation at the Taksim square would be internalized properly by Erdogan and his colleagues. The major lesson which needs to be learnt by the AKP is that in today’s world of UTube, twitter and other social media organs, government repression becomes viral instantly with deleterious consequences for the political health of the governing apparatus. If this basic lesson is not learnt and hubris and arrogance continue to inform Turkish politics, it would mean that Turkey has regressed in its attempts to be seen as a modern democracy.