What Is Happening in Turkey?

Istanbul, Turkey – The world’s attention turned to Brazil and the financial markets as things returned to normal here in Turkey. I spent the last two days in this ancient city, and there were very few signs (even in Gezi Park and Taksim Square) that anything was amiss. Clusters of police officers found shelter from the sun in Taksim, but there was no evidence that they were spoiling for a fight. The occasional “standing man” (or standing person, as we saw a few women as well) could be seen scattered around the city. Otherwise, little is visible.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It took me nearly a week to figure it out, but I’m reasonably confident about the basic narrative: a small group of activists objected to the planned construction of an Ottoman-style barracks at Gezi Park, a small patch of trees near Taksim Square. Trees are a useful thing in a city where the summer days are hot, something that I now appreciate first hand. And Gezi is a bigger than I expected. It looks like a nice place to relax or picnic.

When police disrupted a peaceful protest with what many saw as excessive force, others rallied to the protesters’ cause, assembling in nearby Taksim. But within a short time, other opposition groups seized upon the protest to push their pet projects, most of which revolved around Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). When a few of those late-arrivals (and I have not heard anyone suggest that the original protesters were among this group) resorted to violence, burning cars and vandalizing businesses, they lost support of some who might otherwise have been sympathetic to their cause. This is not to excuse the excessive police response, but the message I heard repeatedly was that the perception of a break down of civil order simply could not be tolerated. This is not an idle concern in a country with a history of military coups supplanting civilian authority.

On the other hand, fears of a return to military rule—a Kemalist revival, as it were—seem overdone. A few look back fondly at that earlier period, albeit through rose-colored glasses, but most of the protesters and their supporters are looking forward, not backward. AKP supporters are a little too quick to invoke the Kemalism bogeyman, the one thing that united classical liberals and religious people behind the AKP in the first place. The AKP also likes to blame foreigners, including the foreign press, for throwing gas on the fire. Some allege that foreigners must have started it. By dismissing the liberals’ legitimate concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy, Erdogan risks losing them completely.

Erdogan has shattered many of the vestiges of the old Republican order, including the Kemalists’ state-imposed secularism that runs counter to people’s actual lives. The military-imposed constitution remains in place, and that will have to be substantially revised, if not entirely rewritten. It will be difficult to strike a balance between the desire of religious people to practice their religion without fear of official persecution or social ostracism, while at the same time protecting the rights of religious or ethnic minorities. Members of these minority groups, including Christians, Kurds, and Armenians, claim that things are better under Erdogan, but there is still work to do. A leader of the Syrian Catholic Church, for example, reminded us that Christians are still not allowed to hold government jobs. An Armenian activist wants citizenship for his people. A Kurd observed that the Taksim protests distracted attention from stalled peace negotiations. The fragile peace between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the government could fall apart if progress isn’t made soon.

Some within the AKP are worried. Erdogan is barred by party rules from running for prime minister again, and analysts are speaking openly of a Putin-Medvedev-style switch, whereby Erdogan is kicked upstairs to the presidency, and the popular president Abdullah Gul becomes prime minister.

Parallels to Russia are unsettling, but Turkey is different. It isn’t a perfect democracy (what democracy is?) but it is a real democracy, and Erdogan clearly still has considerable popular support. That isn’t to say that he hasn’t overreached, or that he might. His tone is often harsh and he seems to go out of his way at times to needle his opponents. He revels in his blunt manner of speaking, and his supporters like that. But it hardly seems accurate or fair to lump him together with Vladimir Putin.

The bigger problem is the weakness of the opposition, which effectively forecloses a truly democratic response when Erdogan and the AKP go too far. We heard from a number of observers that the young people in Turkey are suffering from mental fatigue, and some are frustrated to the point of hopelessness. They have known nothing but the AKP for nearly all of their lives, and they see no reasonable prospect for anything different. In such an environment, people lose faith in democracy and resort to other means. But Erdogan can’t be prime minister forever, and the democratic process must still be given time to work.

I have learned a lot this past week about a country that epitomizes Fareed Zakaria’s “rise of the rest.” Turkey is going places, with or without Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the long term, and those who haven’t been paying attention to its remarkable rise risk missing out on its promising future.