A demonstrator waves a flag as he sits on a monument during a protest against Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AKP in central Ankara, 2013. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, he did what successful big city mayors do -- he made life a little easier for the millions of residents of his beautiful, maddening megalopolis. Erdogan cleaned up the garbage in the streets, unknotted traffic, and literally cleared the air by introducing environmentally friendlier public transportation. Always one for grand ambitions, during his tenure at City Hall the future prime minister made a now often repeated statement to a journalist from the daily Milliyet, “Democracy,” he declared, “is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”
These stories go a long way toward explaining the demonstrations against Turkey’s prime minister over the past several days. Erdogan, who hails from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Istanbul, has both an innate sense of what makes average Turks tick and an oddly instrumental view of democracy. He never indicated the “destination” toward which he thought Turkey's democracy should be headed. But 15 years later, many Turks have drawn the conclusion that Erdogan had always intended to step off the tram as soon he had accumulated unrivaled power.
The prime minister’s party, Justice and Development (AKP), was founded in August 2001 after young reformists broke from the old guard of Turkey’s Islamist movement. Even then, Erdogan was a first among equals, but he had important associates, especially Abdullah Gul, who now occupies the presidential palace and remains officially above politics. Yet, in time, Erdogan became the party and the party became him. Not that Turkish voters seemed to mind: the AKP has had a majority in parliament since November 2002.
Trees were only a proximate cause of the first full-fledged political crisis of Erdogan’s remarkable decade long run. For many of the people who turned out to protest over the last four days, Erdogan wore out his welcome from the very start. Supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents a peevish, reckless, and visionless group of Kemalist elites and alleged social democrats, oppose the AKP on principle. There were also reports of Leftists and “anti-capitalist Muslims” joining the fray. A variety of small, less-influential political parties turned up to wave flags in Taksim Square. Yet the anger went beyond the typically narrow interests of Turkey’s party politics. The demonstrators were not “marginal” as Erdogan asserted, but rather profoundly frustrated because they have been marginalized.