international analysis and commentary

Turkey’s domestic battle lines: beyond Islam, “majoritarian democracy”


The clashes in Istanbul’s Taksim Square (and later in many other Turkish cities) following the repression of protests against the destruction of Gezi Park represent the most contentious events in Turkey in recent decades. More significantly, they originated from an environmental dispute and quickly became centered on a wide range of issues that are important to very diverse social milieus. This has puzzled Western observers who are uncertain about labeling the riots as a “Turkish Spring” in favor of personal liberties and human rights, or rather as a mob made up of different kinds of disgruntled and marginalized people. Another open question is the possibility that the massive rallies in Taksim Square could mark the beginning of the end of the decade-long political cycle dominated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. This can look unlikely at first sight, as the current Turkish government has engendered unprecedented (as well as ongoing) economic growth, and has placed Turkey in a more prominent role in regional and international affairs. However, despite the fact that Erdogan is immensely popular among wide sectors of Turkish society (as proven by his 2011 massive electoral victory), he has recently started to draw criticism from various sides.

As usual, Erdogan’s most outspoken critics are the secular forces and feminist organizations that never supported him in the first place because of his Islamist past, and that are currently concerned about some of his recent moves: an education reform that grants a wider role for Islam and opens universities to students from “imam hatip” schools; the recent restrictions on alcohol consumption in accordance with the Islamic creed; and the government’s “crusade” against abortion including a law project that would make it much harder the access the procedure. Such moves are seen by secular citizens as evidence that their allegations about the government’s “secret Islamic agenda” were true.

Concerns about a new policy course do not solely regard the issue of secularism, but are also more broadly connected to the actions against press freedom that the government started in 2008, including the jailing of dozens of reporters allegedly involved in plans against Turkey’s democracy. Many of the Taksim Square protesters also seemed to view the presumed pro-Islamic moves of the government (such as the limitations on alcohol consumption) in terms of a broader grip on the citizens’ personal lives.

The complaints are also related to the socio-economic domain since many poor people feel cheated by a government that has engaged in pharaonic projects of urban restructuring in agreement with the economic elite connected to the regime, without addressing the needs of the poorer segments of the population (which are deprived of facilities such as parks, and in some cases of their homes in order to make room for the new projects).

In addition to this discontent, minority religious groups, such as the Alevis, are complaining about a recent project to name a new bridge on the Bosphorus after an Ottoman emperor who is known as an Alevi-slayer. And, what should be especially worrisome to the government, powerful Islamic groups, such as Fethullah Gülen’s which was formerly allied to the Prime Minister, seem more outspoken today in their criticism. Paradoxically, only the Kurds, afraid to jeopardize the current peace process, are mostly silent.

It is clear that such a massive wave of dissatisfaction cannot be simply connected to the Islamic planks of the government’s agenda. Rather, it seems related to a broader turn in Erdogan’s decision-making style, starting with the Ergenekon trials, and becoming stronger after the 2011 landslide electoral victory. While in previous terms, the Prime Minister seemed to be more concerned about social harmony and consensus among social groups at large, he has recently started to rely almost exclusively on his wide conservative social base, adopting a more autocratic decision-making style – which seems to be proven by his words in response to the Taksim Square riots: “I don’t need the permission of the opposition. The voters already gave me permission for this.”

The real problem is therefore this majoritarian idea of democracy that the government has adopted in the current term, interpreting the electoral support of half the population as an open mandate to carry out all kinds of plans, be they aimed to moralize people, or to modernize Turkish cities. What seems to be the adhesive holding together the mixed social groups participating in the riots, though they are very different in their ideologies, is that they are all worried about the government’s grip on their personal liberties.

Can we conclude, therefore, is that we are witnessing a “Turkish Spring”, as alleged by some Western media? Probably not, although some similarities do exist (the mixed composition of the protest, the absence of political parties, the use of social media). First, Turkey – despite its well-known flaws – is a democratic system, capable of channeling dissatisfaction into institutional passageways. Moreover, the “post-materialist” nature of the initial protests – connected to an environmentalist issue – reminds us much more of what’s happening in Western European countries such as France and Italy (with rallies and riots against gay marriage or railway projects) than the events in the MENA region. Lastly, the flourishing Turkish economy provides a strong cushion against a full-fledged revolt involving large segments of the population. Having said this, we must still not forget that the conservative social base supporting the government is still solid.

Yet, the wave of protests could indeed determine the end of Erdogan’s political cycle. In the short term, this could happen as a consequence of a stubborn stance by the government, triggering a destabilization of the political system that could involve (in a worst scenario) a praetorian intervention of the army – which would be nothing new to Turkey, where long cycles of conservative rule have been stopped by the military several times. If the Turkish democracy will instead prove stronger and more resourceful than it has been in past decades, the protests could instead catalyze a new wave of political change. Such a process could derail towards a nationalist shift but also, hopefully, evolve into a new democratic opposition better able to balance the undisputed power that Erdogan’s party currently wields.