The protests that started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park two weeks ago have spread across Turkey and show little sign of dying down. They signify a clash between a modernizing Turkish society and a still rigid and old-fashioned political system.
The protests have resulted in the tragic loss of several lives and are endangering Turkey’s hard-won economic stability as investors take fright. But they also have a silver lining. They might force the government to reconsider its rejection of pluralism. And they might even help to revive Turkey’s moribund accession process to the European Union.
Turkey’s government has spent millions of euros over the last decade on European advertising campaigns to update its image and lessen public opposition to its EU membership bid. The Gezi Park protestors have had a more profound impact on Turkey’s international image in just a few weeks. European news bulletins and social media have been showing a new generation of Turks who, in articulate English, explain how much they value democracy, personal freedoms, and tolerance between people with different lifestyles. The colorful banners of Taksim Square have replaced the stock images of mosques, Anatolian peasants, and monumental Bosphorus bridges.
The huge change that has taken place in Turkish society over the past two decades is suddenly evident to European voters, many of whom previously equated Turkey with Islamism, Kurdish terrorists, and mass migration. The images from Gezi Park resonate particularly with younger Europeans who see the protests as Turkey’s version of the American Occupy movement, the Spanish “Indignados” movement, and the German Wutbürger protests. These younger Europeans will vote on Turkish EU accession when the accession negotiations are finished.
The Twitter effect is a new element in the Turkey-EU relationship. The laughable failure of Turkey’s mainstream press to cover the protests accurately has driven people to rely on Twitter and Facebook as their main source of news. Twitter could not have asked for a better marketing campaign than Erdogan’s ranting against “lies on social media.” Turkey is also trending in social media conversations within the EU—here, comments are at the same time becoming more in favor of Turkish accession to the EU (because of its people) and more skeptical it will happen (because of its government).
The EU’s dilemma is how to encourage Turkish society without rewarding the government. The conditionality of the accession talks is a blunt weapon. Germany or another member-state might be tempted to block the opening of the next chapter in the negotiations on regional policy to express disdain about the Erdogan government’s brutal reaction to the protests. But such sanctions would only feed the paranoia that Erdogan’s party is spreading about alleged international plots against Turkey. They would reduce the EU’s leverage still further.
Instead, the EU should hug Turkey closer at this great moment in the country’s democratic journey. The EU is right to criticize police violence and repression of the media, but it should also engage in an intense dialogue with the Turkish government about increasing pluralism and personal freedoms. There are chapters in the negotiations that could help to guide Turkey through this major transition—such as Chapters 23 and 24 on fundamental rights, justice and home affairs—which Cyprus and other EU countries should unblock.
In a way, the Gezi Park protests are a victory of the accession process so far. Erdogan rose to power by reassuring Turkey’s more liberal, secular classes that he was serious about EU accession and the democratic and economic opening this entailed. Especially during his early years in power, Erdogan significantly strengthened the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression. Today’s protests are the result of this enormous opening of the Turkish political space.
Walking around Taksim Square before it was cleared by the police, I saw the vast variety of political opinions and causes represented there: pictures of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan were held up next to a banner for the Muslim Anti-Capitalist League; environmentalists sat in their tents alongside self-declared Communists; youngsters played music while headscarved mothers pushed prams around the park. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, a remarkable display of tolerance and mutual respect.
Most of the protesters eschewed violence even in the face of police brutality. The dozens of causes gathered there have conflicting ideologies and visions for Turkey. What unites them is a desire for more pluralism and space for dissent. The fact that these small, diverse organizations immediately sprouted when a breath of oxygen came into the public space is testament to the vibrancy of Turkish civil society.
The problem is that Erdogan’s old-fashioned leadership is more and more at odds with this more pluralist and modern society. The battles between police and protestors are part of a much bigger battle between “leader knows best” politics and modern social participation. Many, if not most, Turks still favor strong leadership and the education system promotes a reverence for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the father of the nation.
But Erdogan’s reaction to the protests has made the paternalistic style look like Victorian parenting in a modern family. Erdogan initially refused to enter a dialogue with his rebellious “children.” Turkey’s citizens, however, are no longer content to be infantilized. They do not want the prime minister to tell them to drink yogurt, bear three children, and stop drinking alcohol after 10 p.m. Erdogan’s ministers, who blamed banks, speculators, a global conspiracy—anyone but themselves—for the protests showed how out of touch they are with their own society. Erdogan would have done better to copy Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his dialogue with the Indignados than Vladimir Putin lambasting Pussy Riot.
Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not alone in having missed or misinterpreted Turkey’s social opening. The other big parties that have dominated Turkish politics for decades fared no better. The secularist center-left Republican People’s Party, (CHP)—which Erdogan has accused of organizing the protests—was nowhere to be seen in Gezi Park. The protests are an outcry of the many social groups who feel disenfranchised by the AKP’s (or more precisely Erdogan’s) 15-year dominance of Turkish politics.
The underlying problem is that the AKP fears pluralism. It equates criticism of the government with treachery to the Turkish state that needs to be punished. There is a chance that these protests will help Turkey start to accept its diversity. If the protests keep spreading, Erdogan and his party will be forced to accept that the expression of opinions and beliefs they dislike is part of any modern democracy. Europeans should help this process along, not reject Turkey at this critical moment.