Taksim Gezi Park protests — First Anniversary: Is Putin’s Russia a Good Example for Erdogan’s Turkey? Or is Former British PM Margaret Thatcher a More Appropriate Comparison?

31st May was the first anniversary of the beginning of massive protest movement in Turkey against government plans to erect a shopping center and luxury flats in one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, and against police brutality.  The following is one of the many articles we published last year during the events.

occupy-gezi “Erdoğan’s polarising tactics might have come straight from the Putin playbook. Instead of talking to the demonstrators – a diverse and previously non-political bunch – he has blamed the protests on a murky foreign conspiracy. Many critical journalists are already in jail and on Tuesday Erdoğan denounced the international media. His ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party (AKP) has made menacing noises about banning Twitter, one of the main conduits for anti-Erdoğan mockery, and dubbed a menace by the PM.

Like Putin, Erdoğan has been in power for more than a decade. Unlike Putin, he won a mandate through fair elections. He remains Turkey’s most popular politician.

Since winning a third parliamentary victory in 2011 Erdoğan has embarked on a controversial project of Islamist social retooling. He has banned the sale of alcohol from 10pm to 6am, and banished booze from the vicinity of shops and mosques. The protesters are unhappy about this and other affronts to their lifestyles, and increasingly authoritarian governing style.”  These are the words of Luke Harding in today’s Guardian.  The same comparison with Russia’s Putin has been mentioned quite a lot during the last couple of weeks in the media both in Turkey and globally.

Just like Putin in Russia, Erdogan seemed untouchable until recently. He was the most popular politician in Turkey after winning three consecutive elections by increasing his majority.  He was the leader of the country when Turkey’s economy has started to grow impressively and been considered one of the top ten Emerging Stars of the world alongside with the BRICs.  And it was under his leadership significant steps have been taken into calming the decades long violent conflict with the country’s significant Kurdish minority.  But all this, success and fame, made Tayyip Erdogan even more power-hungry, big-headed and susceptible to criticism.  He started to use state apparatus to such excess that according to many observers he ended up governing the country in the same autocratic style for which he had bitterly criticized the secular generals. After ten years and three terms in power, the result is the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian, religiously inspired and obsessively neoliberal system, based on a cleverly crafted hegemonic apparatus.  This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, the jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring with terrorists, pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists, and the updating of military regime’s anti-terrorism laws.

All these are characteristic of an administration that has spent too long in power and become too arrogant and too sure of itself.  Therefore, perhaps the current conflict, which has found its most powerful expression in the Taksim Gezi Park protest of tens of thousands of young people, boils down, more than anything else, to a style of ruling, style of a leader who is increasingly intolerant of dissent.  As his regime provides material improvement in the lives of large sections of Turkey’s population, he becomes more and more arrogant and too sure of himself and his authoritarian ruling style.   Now he is acting as if the national power is his own personal power, because the millions of people, 53% in the most recent elections, in Turkey’s representational democracy had given their power to his party.  But with the recent protest movements, started in Taksim Gezi Park, a line had been crossed.  The young protesters in Taksim square has already achieved a significant goal: to show the urgent need to go back to basics and ensure that the fundamental tenets of individual freedom and democracy function in Turkey.  If a significant number of people are not allowed to express their views freely and to demonstrate peacefully, and their attempts to view their opposition is met with such heavy brutality, then this is not a proper democracy.

What is democracy?  To put it briefly, one can think of democracy as a system of government with four key aspects:   A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections;  the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens;  and finally a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Democracy is not only about elections in every 4 or 5 years, but it is essentially a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their leaders accountable for their policies and their conduct in office.  In a democracy, the people are sovereign—they are the highest form of political authority, not their elected political leaders.   Power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily.  The people are free to criticize their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government.   Elected representatives at the national and local levels should regularly listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions.

“Democracy is a demanding discipline – not only during election campaigns, but every day. It requires debates, consultation and compromise,” rightly said Štefan Füle, EU Enlargement Commissioner in his meeting with Tayyip Erdogan on 7th of June in Istanbul while the Taksim Gezi demonstrations were still going on.   Füle also said that excessive use of force by police had “no place” in a democracy and called for a “swift and transparent investigation” to bring those responsible to account.  Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, responded by saying that his party’s victory in past elections justified carrying through with controversial projects like the redevelopment of Gezi Park and Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) in Taksim.

It is obvious from various statements during the recent days that not everyone within the AKP shares Erdogan’s ruling style.  In particular the President of the country, Abdullah Gul, and the deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, have been careful to distance themselves from Erdogan’s defiant style and uncompromising remarks.  There are clear indications that Erdogan’s particular ruling style is increasingly becoming more and more contentious within his own party.

“Thatcher will continue to be a source of inspiration for many politicians with her courage, tenacity and determination,” Tayyip Erdogan had said in his message to his British counterpart over the demise of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in April this year.  Erdogan and Thatcher had lots in common:  Margaret Thatcher, just like Erdogan, had stayed in office and won three consecutive elections.  Just like Erdogan, Thatcher too had started to think she could get away with everything, even most unfair and unpopular policies, because she was at the height of her popularity.  When she was faced with Poll Tax riots in March 1990, Margaret Thatcher acted as a very stubborn, uncompromising and hawkish leader, and her response to tens of thousands of Poll Tax protesters was uncompromising police brutality, just like the case in Turkey now.  In the case of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the result was quite swift and sharp too: she was out of office by the end of the year- she was forced to resign by her own parliamentary party.

Bulent Gokay

Keele, 12 June 2013

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