Three sets of processes, each in the making for some time, have converged to provoke the violence of the last few days in Istanbul and in other major Turkish cities. The consequences perhaps pose the most serious challenge to the once-unchallenged authority of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and to his legacy. The first development, by far the most unsettling for large swathes of Turkish society, has been a culture war of sorts being waged between secularists on the one side and an expansive and increasingly confident religious segment on the other. Ever since its founding in 1923, the Turkish Republic has adhered to the secular principles of its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But over the last few decades, the Turkish middle class’s self-image as European and “modern” has come under sustained challenge by a growing minority of socially conservative, religiously oriented Turks. Given the traditionalists’ growing affluence and steady ascent, first economically and over the last decade politically, the country’s Ataturkists find themselves on the defensive for the first time.
A second, related development has been the steady process of liberalization of the Turkish political system during the last decade or so. The last time Turkey experienced direct military rule was between 1980 and 1983. After that the country’s democratic system operated under the ominous shadow of the military, the so-called deep state, which saw itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy. In 1997, when Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan showed signs of possible religious leanings, the military forced his resignation through a “silent coup.”
During Erdogan’s time in office, there has been a steady transition from Turkey’s once illiberal democracy to a more truly democratic political system. The once-powerful military has been defanged. In 2012, after a sensational public trial, more than 320 active-duty military officers, and a similar number of retired ones, were convicted of having plotted a coup against Erdogan in 2003. Most were imprisoned, while many others were forced into early retirement.
At the same time, under prodding by the European Union, Turkey’s government has ameliorated its treatment of the Kurdish minority. Turkey’s Kurds started an armed rebellion in 1984, which has resulted in the death of over 45,000 Turks. As part of Turkey’s accession to the EU, Ankara has engaged in peace talks with the principal Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. In May of this year, the PKK announced that it would withdraw from southeastern Turkey and into northern Iraq. This represented a major turning point in the life of the Turkish Republic, and it was an impressive accomplishment for Erdogan.
Ironically, Turkey’s democratization process has proceeded despite rather than because of Erdogan. The personality of the prime minister, in fact his irascibility and even arrogance, was a third factor that contributed to the outpouring of public frustration since June 1. Perhaps the most consequential Turkish politician since Ataturk, Erdogan has displayed increasing confidence since his party’s third electoral victory in the June 2011 parliamentary elections, which often comes across as dismissive arrogance bordering on autocracy.
Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to become the country’s next president. There are rumors, which Erdogan has not dispelled, that he intends to turn the largely symbolic office of the presidency into Turkey’s most powerful political institution, in effect transforming the parliamentary system into a presidential one.
These three dynamics – Turkey’s growing cultural chasm and social schizophrenia, the transition toward a more meaningful democracy, and the ascendancy of an increasingly prickly political leader – can each be profoundly unsettling. Their convergence, brought together in a chaotic and violent regional context, has rocked Erdogan’s rule and Turkey’s commercial and political centers like never before.
For now, riot police may have cleared Taksim Square and most protesters appear to have resumed their daily routines of work and life. But the consequences of what transpired in Taksim for 12 days will reverberate for some time to come. Erdogan is likely to have been humbled somewhat by the popular display of anger, most of which was directed against him personally. Whether and how much he will moderate his autocratic personality remains to be seen.
More difficult to manage in the long term, however, are Turkey’s seemingly unbridgeable cultural chasms and its struggle to find a steady democratic footing. Even if the demonstrations of the past days subside and life returns to normal, Turkey still has deep internal contradictions that it must resolve.
Mehran Kamrava is director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.