After three weeks of anti-government protests, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains defiant. On Saturday and Sunday June 15-16, Erdogan organized two massive rallies in Ankara and Istanbul, where he pledged to “spoil the big game” and to “write Turkey’s history.”
The Prime Minister laced his speeches with a smattering of religious imagery, references to foreign conspiracies, and continued claims that radical groups have used the protests as a pre-text to disrupt public order.
Only hours after his first speech in Ankara, on Saturday evening, the prime minister the clearing of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, where protests began in late May with the initial aim of preventing the park’s destruction.
Erdogan had warned in his Saturday speech that the park would be cleared within 24 hours, but few expected the crack down to start that very night, when the park was sure to be very crowded.
The police operation came just one day after the Taksim Solidarity Group – an umbrella organization representing the Gezi Park demonstrators – refused to leave the park, after Erdogan agreed to comply with a court decision to suspend the razing of Gezi.
While the decision has been appealed, should the court ultimately allow construction to proceed, the AKP has indicated its willingness to take the issue to a local plebiscite. Demonstrators have rejected such a narrow concession, maintaining that the protests have evolved to become about far more than the uprooting of trees and the destruction of a park.
The Saturday night assault on Gezi Park sparked clashes with protesters, mass arrests, a general strike by Turkish trade unions, held on June 17, and continued violence in Istanbul and other cities throughout Turkey.
Erdogan and the rest of the AKP party apparatus seized on these violent images and have steadfastly sought to portray the protest movement as divided between violent extremists and more reasonable environmentalists.
To be fair, some of the flags waving in Gezi and Taksim Square suggest the movement has been penetrated by a slew of radical leftist organizations with causes that belie attempts to portray protesters as a monolithic block of apolitical youth intent on carving out a more democratic future.
These leftist groups are a minority in what is largely a leaderless spasm of anger at the AKP’s rule. Nevertheless, the distinction allows the AKP to pivot back to its own democratic achievements, which include the granting of unprecedented – but still largely inadequate – rights to the Kurdish minority living in Turkey. The AKP is keen to include these and other successes in its electoral talking points to continue to appeal to its base and to delegitimize the protest movement.
These tactics are not particularly new. Turkey has a history of violent protests, most notably during the 1960s and 70s, when tensions between right wing, left wing, and religious conservative groups, all with their own particular political backers, erupted in violent clashes on the streets for close to a decade.
Turkey’s on-going protests are actually far less violent than these events of the past, underscoring differences between the current anti-government bloc and previous opposition movements. While, previously, protests were typically led by marginal leftist groups, more apolitical youth groups representing a smattering of different and disparate causes are at the forefront of current demonstrations.
Erdogan’s handling of these events suggests both he and his party have failed to adapt to the make-up of the new protest movement. Instead, the prime minister has chosen to follow the old political playbook of divide and conquer, in lieu of playing the role of conciliator in chief.
Erdogan continues to maintain that he will not bow to the wishes of a minority of Turks and has reiterated in speech after speech that the only way to settle the Gezi Park issue is at the ballot box. This rhetoric, while reflective of the AKP’s insistence on its democratic legitimacy, further underscores feelings of political marginalization among protesters. In turn, this has hardened political demands and made it less likely that either side will move to de-escalate the situation.
As far as popular will is concerned, recent events have eroded support for the AKP government. Data from March 2013 indicates that 62% of Turkish citizens had a favorable view of Erdogan, while just 34% viewed him unfavorably. The poll also indicated that only 36% of Turkish Muslims who prayed infrequently had a favorable view of Erdogan, compared to a nearly 75% favorability rating among those who prayed five times per day.
More recent data from Metropoll – an independent strategic and social research firm in Turkey – suggests that the protests and the government’s handling of the unrest have damaged Erdogan and the AKP. 49.6% of Turkish citizens think the government is moving toward authoritarianism. 20.6% blamed the government for the protests’ escalation, with another 16.9% blaming Erdogan directly for the unrest. In a blow to the government’s political messaging, only 3.2% believe that foreign powers were responsible for the demonstrations.
While polling data suggests that the prime minister continues to retain support from his core constituency, the continued use of polarizing rhetoric creates economic as well as political risks for the AKP.
Turkey remains dependent on short-term portfolio funds to finance its perpetually high current account deficit (CAD). For the past month or so, fears that the U.S. Treasury would taper its fiscal stimulus policies have prompted investors to flee from riskier markets in developing countries. Turkey has been no exception to this trend.
Current protests have shaken investor confidence further, exacerbating an already gloomy economic future. Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke is slated to make an announcement on June 19 about the U.S. government’s bond-buying program, which is sure to have reverberations in Turkey.
On top of all these developments, Erdogan is fighting a political battle to draft a new constitution. The current Turkish constitution, which was written by the military junta after the 1980 coup, has various shortcomings. For instance, Article 34 protects the right to freedom of assembly, but is filled with numerous caveats that could be used to justify troubling government actions, including current police abuses against protesters.
The AKP has recognized the constitution’s deficiencies and has led a nation-wide effort to draft a more liberal and democratic document. Deliberations on the new constitution are taking place through a parliamentary commission, which includes representatives from the AKP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdogan has chastized the group for moving too slowly and has indicated that he may opt to circumvent the process and present an AKP draft for parliamentary consideration.
With his term-limit expiring in 2015, Erdogan has floated the idea of including a constitutional provision to strengthen the presidency. The prime minister has, however, faced resistance from opposition parties, as well as from AKP MPs about his ambitious presidential plans.
While Erdogan appears to have over reached and the likelihood of realizing his presidential ambitions remain small, the perception that he is trading Articles in the constitution to realize his political goals remains palpable.
For these reasons, even before protests broke out, the drafting of Turkey’s new constitution was tinged by ideological brinksmanship. In a rather strange paradox, however, events of the past week have dramatically underscored the need for a new constitutional document. The path to consensus has now become much harder, underscoring one of the major challenges facing the AKP once order is restored.
As of now, Erdogan has opted for a short-term political strategy that focuses on intensifying differences within Turkish society. This will certainly resonate with elements of his base and is likely to help him maintain support among his core constituency. This strategy fails, however, to account for Turkey’s long-term interests, which are threatened by increased political polarization.