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Turkish protests indicate growing independence of civil society

11:03 | 14.06.2013 | Analytic


14 June 2013. PenzaNews. International observers and representatives of the expert community continue to discuss the political situation in Turkey engulfed by a series of protests which started with a rally in Gezi Park to oppose its demolition as part of a redevelopment plan. This peaceful environmental action turned into a wave of anti-government protests, which, according to some analysts, is the evidence of dissatisfaction with the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his reform efforts.

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According to an Istanbul-based analyst Iason Athanasiadis, this situation could be foreseen.

“The events unfolding in Turkey are typical of the instability that develops in countries where a government supported by a largely popular rural base improves their material conditions (even while exploiting this base by impoverishing them long-term by extending easy credit and sponsoring neoliberal policies, but that is another story) but crashes up against a privileged urban elite for whom material goods are not a primary concern,” he said in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews.”

He also added that the protesters are largely upset at the non-consultative and autocratic manner in which the prime minister has gone about pushing through his economic projects.

“They are also angry at the changing of Istanbul’s appearance from that of a minimally-maintained global capital with nearly two thousand years of history whose cosmopolitanism, minorities and religious and secular architecture were sacrificed during the Kemalist period to the necessities of creating a mono-lingual, mono-religious nation state united around Turkic nationalism. As Istanbul’s mayor, Erdogan spruced up and modernized the city, whereas as prime minister, he ushered in a neoliberal crony capitalism whereby political allies suffering from an Anatolian nouveau riche aesthetic were brought in to build the kind of Westernizing infrastructure that, in the opinion of the protesters, detracts from Istanbul’s essential atmosphere,” the expert explained.

According to Nigar Goksel, Editor in chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly, the situation in Turkey has been evolving by the day.

“I have personally witnessed at least four different categories of protestors: the diverse group at Gezi Park, the political parties that are trying to take advantage of the situation, the violent and vandal elements that have ridden this wave, and the ordinary people making their voices heard in many neighborhoods out of their windows with pots and pans or with flags and chants in their neighborhood squares. These groups are not orchestrated or organized – therefore a significant challenge is the lack of a legitimate channel to represent them,” she said.

However, in her opinion, these developments put a dent into Turkey’s claim to be a model in the neighborhood.

“The model rhetoric has been delivered a blow. And the international community will likely approach political developments in Turkey with more scrutiny. The Turkish opposition parties are invigorated. However, whether this will be translated into real pressure on the government will depend on how the economy fairs, how the Turkish opposition maneuvers, and the internal dynamics of the ruling party. The government may decide to escalate the polarization to consolidate their base, rather than to seek reconciliation. This is yet to be seen,” Nigar Goksel noted.

According to Safak Bas, an analyst at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) in Berlin, it is up to Prime Minister and the police to avoid an escalation.

“It is important to note that comparisons to the Arab Spring are wrong. Erdogan is not an authoritarian dictator but a democratically elected PM. However, his understanding of democracy is restricted to the ballot box. He thinks that by getting 50% of the votes in the last election he can act as he wants to. But there are still 50% who did not elect him. This section of the Turkish society demands to be heard,” the expert said and stressed that the protests are peaceful and only escalate when the police intervenes.

“The movement is very heterogeneous. There are all kinds of people and it is very impressive, because nobody expected to see these groups on side. However, there is no viable parliamentary opposition to Erdogan and no party that could canalize the protesters demands on political level,” Safak Bas noted.

In turn, Naveed Ahmad, an international journalist and co-founder of multi-lingual feature and opinion service Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges, suggested that Turkey has in fact discovered its Hyde Park in 2013, a by-product of decade-long democratization process.

“But these protests are not for any one reason. Many groups gathered in Taksim and elsewhere in the urban areas are pressing for their respective demands. Mainly, the protestors are angry with PM Erdogan’s style of governance who believes in democracy but after winning election likes to assume absolute power. There are some who find Turkey’s staunch Kemalist identity is diminishing as under Erdogan’s 10 year Turkish state has offered more civil liberties to people since the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Then there are environmental groups seeking protection of national parks and trees against urbanisation and construction. Also included are the groups aiming to get more labor rights from the country’s expanding Holding companies and Corporations,” the analyst said.

He believes that regardless of the protests rudderless character, Recep Tayyip Erdogan must listen to the alram bells and go beyond economic prosperity and social inclusiveness of Islamist groups and religious and ethnic minorities.

“He needs to change his angry leader’s attitude to a loving father’s. Turkish democracy has finally come of age whereby electoral supremacy does not forfeit dissenters’ right to be heard and understood,” the expert noted.

He also added that the movement has enormous similarities with the Occupy Wall Street than any other uprising in the recent memory.

However, initial strong-arm treatment of police toward protestors has totally converted public opinion against the government and security agencies.

“Six countries including US, UK, Germany and Japan have issued travel warnings for citizens intending to visit Turkey, a rare and provocative act against the 14th largest economy in a decade. Turkey is known to be the most tourist friendly destination in the Muslim world and the Middle East. Turkish economy has already incurred losses worth over 1 billion dollars and stocks have plummeted to record lows since US invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he said and added that in general, the protests have been given more hype than reality.

Deniz Duzenli, Regional Coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) also stressed that the situation in Turkey cannot be compared with Arab Spring.

“It is a different type of demonstrations there. There is a group of people who are not happy with the way of living and how things are developing in Turkey. Prime minister’s way of ruling becomes more and more authoritarian and as he has the majority, he can implement his views and policies; but these people feel really disconnected and wish to have their voices heard as well,” she said in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews.”

The analyst suggested that it might be very damaging if the situation does not end in a peaceful way.

“Turkey is an important regional player and of course wants to keep its position; but the image of Turkish government within Turkey and within neighboring countries will be affected in case of further escalation,” Deniz Duzenli noted.

“We should keep in mind that Turkey is a democracy. GPPAC hopes that there will be a dialogue where both sides will listen to each other and come to a solution together,” she added.

Ekrem Eddy Guzeldere, a political analyst for the European Stability Initiative, shared the view that the protests might negatively affect the image of the country abroad.

“As EU commissioner Stefan Fule has stated, it is disturbing to see from EU perspective that peaceful protest is met with such violence by the police. The government, which wanted to sell Turkey abroad as a booming economic power, politically stable and with an active self-confident foreign policy, is now seen differently abroad. However, whether the Prime Minister cares about his image abroad is not so sure,” he noted.

Meanwhile, according to the expert, it is in the hands of the Prime Minister to reconcile with the protestors with an invitation to dialogue and the acknowledgment of mistakes concerning both the destroying of trees at Gezi Park and the violent behavior of the police including arrests of thousands of demonstrators.

“However, all the statements made by Erdogan so far, do not show any sign of easing the tensions, in contrary, his statements after his return from Northern Africa were even more inciting a confrontation,” Ekrem Eddy Guzeldere emphasized.

According to him, the unusual aspect of the Gezi Park protests is that they are not organized by a political party.

“This is a strictly civilian movement of very diverse civil society organizations. For thirty years people thought that Turkey’s youth is apolitical, only interested in consumption, easy life and not interested in social questions. Now, we have seen that the youth is not ideological, but definitely political and cares for basic issues such as a democratic political system, respect for diversity, transparency and involvement of civil society in the decision making process,” the expert said.

From his point of view, this clearly shows that civil society is getting more independent and that the polarization of the society is a lot less than has always been portrayed.

“We have been seeing that Kurds and Turkish nationalists, LGBT groups and devout Muslims can protest side by side. These people thought that they were alone or a marginal small group, but now they know that there are many who share their view of a democratic, pluralist, transparent society and state and this will stay even when the protests end,” the analyst concluded.

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