Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sick man?

Something appears to be going on in Istanbul.

While the original protests do not appear to have had much, if any, political motivation at this moment there appears to be a relatively small but highly vocal series of protests going on against the government of Prime Minister Erdogan and his AK Party.

Why could this be significant?

Because - as our frequent commenter Sven Ortmann pointed out back in 2008
"Turkey is in a peculiarly important position geopolitically; It controls the Bosporus (exit/entry for Black Sea) and is NATO's access point to the Persian Gulf region (other than from the sea). Sea lanes through Suez Canal/Eastern Mediterranean can be threatened or blocked from Turkey's soil. It's the only almost-Western but Muslim country and could bridge the gap culturally between Europeans and Arabs, being in between both. I should add that the Pan-Turkic ideology (a nationalist party got about 1/8 of the votes in the 2011 elections) could put Turkey into a rival position to Russia in regard to influence in Central Asia (Turkic languages there). The West's encroachment has been stopped in Belarus (as long as the dictatorship doesn't crumble) and Ukraine (where any national election can change the trajectory entirely). Russia would not exactly be happy to face a Turkish challenge on its southern flank."
And, I would add that the intriguing aspect of these protests is the possibility of their bringing the Turkish Army out of its barracks, and I think that a lot will depend on the protesters themselves, the government, and how the Army perceives them both.

Here, for example, is a post from something called the "Social Action Network" that, I think, may overlook the possibility that the Army may step in if the Erdogan government appears to be in danger.

The author concludes with "This is not yet a revolution, but it is not only tear gas that marks the air in Istanbul. It is also a scent of revolutionary aspirations." without anywhere in the body of the article speculating or even acknowledging what might happen if the Turkish Army decided that the "revolution" threatened the Turkish state with either a leftist rebellion or an government-led Islamic reaction. The Army has a long history - beginning with the Ottoman years and continuing as recently as 1997 - of intervening in Turkish politics when things look sketchy.

The AKP was elected largely due to popular dissatisfaction with the military and the Army has so far respected that. At the same time I cannot believe that the Turkish Army is at all pleased with the openly sectarian policies, the pan-Turkish rhetoric, and the Syrian adventurism of PM Erdogan. the comments section one of our regulars (thanks, BB!) links to a pretty good summary over at TPM that concludes that at this time the AKP has pretty much destroyed the Army's ability and willingness to intervene in politics. That adds even more uncertainty to what's going on.

One of the big reasons I am peculiarly fascinated by this is the implications it has for the wider Middle East. Turkey and the political career of the AKP was until recently perhaps the only test-case for an "Islamic state lite"; the possibility that a polity with a largely Muslim population could, in the absence of an Islamic Enlightenment and a thoroughgoing rejection of sectarian politics, have an "islamic" party in power without that party using that power to attempt to implement islamic social policies. Much of the recent governing that the protesters are calling despotic centers around attempts by the ruling party to enact conservative islamic shibboleths into public law; restricting things like alcohol sales and advertising and public displays of affection.

If the Turkish islamic party cannot rule without imposing or trying to impose sectarian law on its secular fellow-citizens I think it bodes poorly for everywhere else in the Muslim world where the traditions and practices of nonsectarian government are less entrenched than Turkey. I consider this a big part of this story and I think that this aspect is being poorly covered. I suspect that to a degree this is "urban hipsters who want to go West" versus "rural hicks who like them some religious limits" but I can't get a feel for to WHAT degree.

I also suspect that the U.S. press, assuming that it bothers to cover this much at all, is likely to frame it in the context of the "us versus them" way that it has taken to reporting events from the Middle East, with the islamist AKP taking the "them" part. But that the larger import of potential instability, or military coup, or the potential failure of the "nonsectarian islamist project" in the pivotal nation of Turkey and its role in a fractious part of the world is likely to go unexamined...

Hard to tell at this point if all this will blow over or blow up, but I'd suggest that events in Turkey are well worth keeping an eye on.


  1. The AKP has dominated Turkish politics for many years now. It's only natural that it shows some arrogance, overreach - and provokes counters.
    Non-parliamentary opposition (demonstrations, radicalised groups etc.) is common in Europe and grows in stature if the parliamentary opposition is ineffective.

    I don't think stability or instability is the right framework for interpreting the events; instead, the events look surprisingly European.

    The only odd thing is that such riots happen during a phase of very rapid economic growth.
    I suppose the still high youth unemployment rate may be a factor:

  2. Josh Marshall has a bit on it

    "But after a decade, Erdogan’s rule has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn. And there have been more and more instances of the state imposing Islamist mores - things like restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, provocative sexuality and so forth."


  3. Sven: I'm not sure if this is a sign of "instability" or not - as you say, it does seem very like what we see elsewhere in Europe. But the protestors themselves are using the comparisons to Tahrir Square in Egypt and that parallel has been used in several of the news reports I read.

    I think the critical factor is whether the Army a) SEES the protests as leading to potential instability and b) have a leader or leaders ready to move to "show a firm hand". At this stage in Turkish politics I suspect that would not be a good thing; my understanding is that the AKP was elected in large part for their promise to push the Army out of Turkish politics. If the Army was to come in now with a shout I can't see how that would end well...

    But, frankly, I'm also not sure HOW this ends. It might just turn out to be a Turkish version of Occupy Istanbul that just farkles around and goes away. My main point was ti simply point this out as something that seems fairly important and yet is getting little attention in the U.S. media...

  4. basil: That's good information. What was really news to me was Marshall's comment that "On a separate front, Erdogan seems to have broken the back of the military’s political power. Vast numbers of high-ranking military officers are now on trial or awaiting trial for conspiring the overthrow the government." I knew about the trials - I even posted about that here two years ago, but not that anyone - especially someone outside Turkey - was saying opening that it had neutered the Army was a force in Turkish politics.

    That really does make a huge difference here. The Army was the bedrock of Kemalist Turkey. And it was Kemalism, and probably ONLY Kemalism that kept Turkey from becoming a more openly Islamic state, as Erdogan has been doing lately.

    If there really is little likelihood that the Army will come out to "stabilize" the nations then Marshall's Turkish correspondant's assessment is spot on; "If this continues like it did yesterday, then it’s a Big Thing that will have further ramifications, but if people start trailing away from the protests because they heard reports that the police opened Taksim and Gezi Parkı back up again, then I think this will just be a blip on the screen."

    And at this point we don't know. We'll just have to watch and wait.

  5. Juan Cole

    The news that Turkey’s Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), representing coalition of 11 trade unions with 250,000 members has now announced a two-day general strike in sympathy with the protesters signals the entry of an element of class conflict into the movement. The unions in Turkey are weak, having been destroyed by the secular right wing military dictatorship of the 1980s, which had the side effect of also destroying the Turkish Left as a viable political bloc. The ruling center-right Justice and Development Party probably benefited in implementing its pro-market policies from the weakness of unions. The unions and the remains of the Left may see an opportunity for revival.

    Erdogan has blamed everyone but himself for the public discontent, decrying the ‘lies’ spread on Twitter, hinting darkly that the opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party [CHP] had conspired to provoke the protests, and now even saying that the demonstrators are ‘linked to terrorists.’

    Erdogan’s theory of what is happening shows an unflattering streak of paranoia and arrogance, and, worse, it is clearly wrong. If a prime minister cannot understand what is happening in his own country, it is a very bad sign.


  6. basil: I tend to agree that this hasn't shown Erdogan in a flattering light. But I think that it's also worth noting that the CHP has been involved (tho I don't believe that they "provoked" the protests. And the whole "linked to terrorists" thing, well, I can't think of a U.S. politician that wouldn't be in a pot-kettle position about that.

    Again, I get a strong sense that this is evolving into a urban seculars vs rural religious as well as a battle between the people who lost out in the AKP wirtschaftwunder - the unions, some minorities, the working class - and the "new men" of the recent boom...

    How critical it is would seem to tie back to how deep, and how ugly, those fissures are...

  7. I think the other big questions here are:

    1. How much of this is against Erdogan the man versus the AKP's policies?

    2. How thoroughly will the police carry out the PM's orders if this IS about Erdogan the man? Are they effectively loyal to him so long as he is in power (i.e. they are loyal to the principle of popular sovereignty) or will they fight to KEEP him in power, loyal to the man not the post?

    The first suggests that firing Erdogan might calm things down and allow the AKP to get on with business. The second suggests that they might want to find out most quick smart who the police will back; if the AKP turfs out Erdogan and puts a new man in the premiership will the coppers smoothly transfer their loyalty to the New Guy?

  8. Gwynne Dyer claims that what we are seeing is much like the Paris riots

    1. I have to say that from what I can see he has a good take on the situation. The whole "Taksim = Tahrir" meme seems overblown, and as you point out, Turkey still has a perfectly functional democracy. If Erdogan needs to go all the opposition needs to do is vote him and his party out.

      Dyer hits on a good point; that perhaps the last big electoral win made Erdogan and other more-islamic types within the AKP forget that while the country as a whole may be "muslim" that the seculars and the less-than-conservative-muslims can't just be tossed aside. The Turkish Way - islamic rule without the islamic social rules - depended on him NOT forgetting that.

      Hopefully these protests have the same result as 1968, and help pull Turkey back from the more autocratic aspects of AKP rule...

    2. To be honest, I believe it makes sense to distinguish between republics and democracies. Some republics are simply not democratic. The electoral college + the senate + the withdrawal of voting rights from felons in the U.S. don't pass a smell test, the weighing of votes in EU parliament elections doesn't, and the 10% barrier for parties to enter the Turkish parliament doesn't either.
      Germany has a 5% barrier, and that's already too high in my opinion.

  9. @FDChief: "The Army was the bedrock of Kemalist Turkey."

    Which is why Erdogan has been trying to blacken the reputation of Kemal Ataturk. During the recent debates on the regulation of Alcohol, he (Erdogan) 'explicitly linked the bill to Islamic law and indirectly accused secular republican hero Ataturk of being a “drunkard”'.