A Turkish Spring? Not Yet

Talk of a Turkish Revolution are overdone.

It is now almost a week since protests in Turkey have brought the country to international attention, sparked by the government’s decision to demolish Gezi Park.

In developments that began as protests over a single issue, waves of demonstrations against the increasingly “authoritarian” behaviour of the Erdogan government have dramatically raised the stakes of the standoff.

Protesters have been calling for the resignation of the Turkish prime minister. But unlike the unrest witnessed in Arab states, the Caucasus, and Central Asia over the last decade, events in Turkey are transpiring within a predominantly liberal, democratic state with strong ties to the West, not least as a member of NATO.

US officials have repeatedly stressed its position as one of its “top five” allies. Turkey is also an important regional arbiter whose role in the Syria crisis is crucial to a resolution.

Since the protests began, a twenty year-old has been killed, and images of a woman being sprayed with tear gas have gone viral across international news and social media. State-run news agencies have reported that police arrested 25 people for tweeting “misinformation” on social networking sites. A major public sector union went on a two-day strike on Tuesday in support of the protests, and the Turkish stock market fell by over 10% in response to the protests.

The unrest threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the Turkish government, which has enjoyed three consecutive election victories and injected life into the once ailing Turkish economy.

In recent days Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, has publicly absorbed the protesters’ anger at the Erdogan government, claiming that initial reactions to the protests were “excessive”.  Arinc also claimed that the protests were “fair and legitimate”, and agreed to meet representatives of the protesters on Wednesday. This is in seemingly stark contrast to Erdogan’s own stance on the issue. Speaking from Morocco, he accused the protesters of being led by extremists, and he has played down claims that the unrest across Turkey constitutes a Turkish Spring, in a model similar to that witnessed in a number of Arab states since December 2010.

Critics of Erdogan, including the protesters, have accused the AKP leader that his methods in government are increasingly dictatorial and anti-democratic. They point to the heavy-handed use of security forces in quashing peaceful opposition, recently introduced limitations on alcohol, and the introduction of a more theocratic legislative agenda than the Turkish body politic is used to. Erdogan is a devout Muslim once held aloft as an exemplar of modern Islamic democracy. But he has been criticised for attempting to introduce a “moralising nanny state” into Turkey’s deeply secular political apparatus.

Polls have shown massive opposition to some of his policies, especially his support for the Syrian opposition movement, even from within his own party. The subplot to the latest developments in Turkey is located in the questions concerning the country’s constitutional future.

Turkey’s political system is designed as a secular parliamentary republic. The prime minister is head of government and answerable to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, while the president’s position is mostly ceremonial. It has been suggested that the prime minister is seeking to strengthen the presidency before he assumes the office for himself.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a divisive character. His rhetoric has alienated a large demographic of young, liberal voters, while energising the conservative base of the country. 

Foreign policy is one area where Erdogan’s leadership has benefited Turkey, at least strategically. He has deftly weaved the course of Turkish diplomacy between Europe and the Middle East, and used the country’s middle power status to its advantage.

During the emergence of the crisis in the Eurozone, Erdogan strengthened his relations with key Arab states, resulting in considerable economic benefits for the country. During the early stages of the Arab Spring, however, Erdogan called for the ousting of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt, and criticised Bashar al-Assad as an outdated dictator.

It is too early to assess how Turkey’s important strategic place between the West and the Arab world will be affected by the recent unrest. It is clear that Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis will be undermined by problems at home, and it remains to be seen whether deploying his deputy prime minister to deal with things in his absence was a clever move.

What is clear is that Western eyes should pay close attention to developments in Turkey, not least because of the reports of an unfolding humanitarian problem. They must do so also because of the effects on regional security a beleaguered Turkey might have.

As things stand, however, Erdogan shows little sign of giving way, even rhetorically.  Much to the protesters’ chagrin, his democratic mandate is a greater source of legitimacy than many other controversial leaders have had in recent years.

Luke Chambers is a foreign and security policy analyst based in Glasgow. He graduated with distinction from Oxford University in 2011, and is currently a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

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