What can we say about Occupy Gezi?
The obsessive Turkey watcher that I am, I have spent a good chunk of the last few days following the news and analysis coming out of Turkey. Though we are still in the midst of the storm, there are some conclusions that can be drawn with a fair amount of certainty.
-Popular frustration has been building up in Turkey over the last several years because of lack of public input into projects. There has also been a disturbing trend of police using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations of all kinds. These two elements, among others, created a volatile situation that exploded on Friday.
-After the initial police interventions, the protest became a magnet for all kinds of Turks with grievances against the government. Some of these new protesters are also frustrated with the AKP’s construction programs, others are perennial AKP opponents. One protester interviewed Piotr Zalewski in his great Time article nicely sums it up when he says “We’re against everything.” Any and all pent up frustrations against the current government are on display at the moment.
-The protests started out among the largely secular and young. however, over the last few days I have seen mounting evidence that, even if they are not joining them in the streets (though some are), the protesters are gaining support from at least some of the AKP’s base demographics.
– We can not say for sure how many AKP supporters sympathize with the protests but there is no doubt that the AKP’s support will be diminished. The AKP’s economic success and history of liberalizing reforms has won the support of many “secular” Turks (not traditionally associated with the AKP) including liberals and the businessmen. Those who were late to jump on the AKP bandwagon will cast their vote elsewhere. However, Turkey’s opposition parties are both weak and unappealing to large segments of the population. The AKP will therefore remain a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics until a viable alternative capable of bridging the many divides of Turkish society appears.
-Despite the fact that many are making the easy (and inaccurate) comparison between the Occupy Gezi movement and the protest movements that brought on the Arab Spring, in all likelyhood this movement will not birth a full out revolution. Unlike the Arab Spring countries, Turkey is a democracy. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The AKP (embodied by Erdogan) received an impressive 50% of the vote in the last election. As discussed above, the popularity of Erdogan and the AKP will certainly take a hit but when it comes down to the line, I am willing to bet that Turkey would rather go with the devil it knows (and elected) over the devil it doesn’t know. However, Erdogan’s ability to guide the creation of a new constitution, already compromised, is likely lost and with it his dream of becoming Turkey’s first American style president.
– If Erdogan continues to insist upon eating his foot, and assuming that no new political opposition party is conjured up, Turkey’s calls for alternative leadership will have to be answered from within the AKP itself. The most likely candidate to step up to the job is the current President Abdullah Gul. Though informal polling indicates that he is unpopular among the protesters, he has consistently shown himself to be the foil to Erdogan’s impulsive and often volatile style of politics. I suspect that after things have cooled down, the AKP base, and those on the bandwagon, will see him as the rational alternative to Erdogan.
– Erdogan, and Turkey in generally, will see their soft power and popularity seriously weakened in the region. Bashar Assad’s denunciations of Erdogan’s handling of protests is certainly ironic but not undeserved. The man who touted democracy abroad refuses to bend to the will of his own citizens. Erdogan’s hypocrisy has been laid bare and I doubt the beleaguered populations of Egypt and other Arab spring countries will any longer have any interest in buying what he is selling.
-Footnote: This should be (and is) is the least of Turkey’s concerns right now, but I cannot see how the IOP will ever agree to give the 2020 Olympics to Istanbul after this weekend.