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When Turkish police attacked a small sit-in to save a park on May 28, Turkey was swept up in a nationwide upheaval that may have changed the country’s politics forever. The ongoing government crackdown only seems to have strengthen protestors’ resolve to usher in a new age.
Many Turkish government officials and international observers have framed the sit-in as a clash between secularism and religion. But most protestors do not have strong ideological convictions (religious or otherwise) or political track records -- that much, at least, is evident in their use of football chants for slogans. And those protesters that do have political affiliations are diverse: quite a few supporters of the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have even shown up.
It was the authorities’ heavy-handed reaction to the Gezi Park protests -- and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dismissive and insulting statements -- that really brought this motley collection of discontents together. In a moment, the movement became more Arab Spring than Occupy Wall Street: the government tried to criminalize the protestors, used tear gas and water cannons against them, and arrested thousands. More than anything, the shared experience of repression, combined with collective frustration at mounting top-down efforts to regulate public life, despite Turkey’s highly diverse ethnic and religious makeup, brought citizens from different walks of life together.
That fellow feeling -- even if it is fleeting -- is new. Traditionally, opposition parties in Turkey had based their platforms on ideology. That is, broad concepts such as secularism or national identity. The Republican People’s Party, for example, has long promoted a rigid interpretation of Atatürkist principles not only alienating more liberal voters, who see it as an old guard that is out of touch with modern Turkey, but also paralyzing the efforts of reformists to push a bona fide social democrat agenda. The Gezi Park protests demonstrated the value of looking beyond ideology toward shared problems and toward protecting the right to make one’s own choices.
The question now is just how durable this coalition will be and whether it will be a real challenge to the ruling party. First, and as with both the Occupy and Arab Spring movements, the momentum unleashed will be nearly impossible to channel into one political platform, both because there is little agreement on specific policies and because many of the protestors are just as skeptical of the traditional opposition parties as they are of the government. No existing party will thus be able to capitalize on recent developments. If anything, the events of the past few weeks might have engendered a new form of politics all together -- protest politics -- especially among youth. Already, a new vocabulary, set of symbols, and forms of solidarity have arisen; the movement may even make martyrs of those who have lost life or limb.
Second, the movement has cast a shadow over the AKP’s reputation. Certainly, the AKP deserves credit for having delivered on a wide range of social services, raising millions into the middle class, improving the country’s infrastructure, and projecting Turkey’s power regionwide. It even arguably planted the seeds of today’s awakening by establishing firm civilian control over politics and enacting sweeping liberalizing reforms at the heyday of the European Union accession process in the 2000s. The sense of empowerment that these reforms instilled is what drove people to the streets in the face of perceived backsliding into authoritarianism.
Even under growing pressure, it remains likely that the AKP will win the next parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015, as no serious competitors exist. In addition, the AKP may well prevail in the local elections scheduled for March 2014. After all, the party’s consecutive victories since 2002 were not only due to Erdogan. They were due to the fact that the AKP catered to the needs and aspirations of those who had been largely excluded from economic power and politics before. These constituents, Turkey's still-conspicuous lower middle class and much of the poor, are still firmly with the party.
On the other hand, it is increasingly unlikely that Erdogan will be able to implement his plan for a constitutional amendment that will transform Turkey into a presidential system with few checks and balances. This bodes well for the medium-term health of Turkish democracy: it allows some space for the old opposition to recalibrate if it can, or (less likely) for parts of the protest movement to form a political movement, although, even then, such a movement would face difficulties passing the ten percent electoral threshold that has long kept smaller parties out of parliament.
The protest may even spark a debate within the AKP, where many have expressed their unease with Erdogan’s management. President Abdullah Gul has stood out in this crisis as a more moderate counterpart to Erdogan. By calling on the government to listen to the people, and reminding society that democracy is not just about elections, he has injected the liberal voice into Turkish politics that many wanted to hear. A bid by Gul for presidential reconfirmation, a prospect that seemed unrealistic until recent events (Erdogan wanted the job), thus cannot be ruled out. If Gul is reconfirmed, it could lead to a rupture in the conservative coalition, which would divide between the Erdogan-friendly old guard and proponents of a new conservative-liberal partnership. A new conservative-liberal partnership might even co-opt elements within the organized opposition and among the protestors, some of whom supported AKP-driven liberalization of an earlier era. If managed wisely, the AKP’s leadership transition could thus give the party a chance to adapt to the new demands.
For now, the protest movement is under pressure from the police to disband, but many in the square insist that this will only stiffen their spines. In the short term, it will almost certainly not topple the government nor convince the famously -- and infamously -- stubborn Erdogan to back down on the red lines he drew regarding plans for Istanbul’s Taksim Square in his early hard-line response to the protests. Undoubtedly, though, the movement has changed Turkey’s medium-term prospects for the better. It represents a new force, not fully controllable by any existing political party and not fully able to control any party. Today it is challenging Erdogan. Tomorrow it could channel its objections to other leaders. To succeed without constant recourse to coercion, all Turkish politicians will have to understand and adapt to this new reality.