It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square — is driving the unrest.
The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.
The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul’s Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that “excellent model” or “model partner,” is also, as many put it, “more democratic than it was a decade ago.” There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.
Shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002, a debate got under way in the United States and Europe about whether Turkey was “leaving the West.” Much of this was the result of the polite Islamophobia prevalent in the immediate post-9/11 era. It was also not true. From the start, Turkey’s new reformist-minded Islamists did everything they could to dispel the notion that by dint of their election, Turkey was turning its back on its decade of cooperation and integration with the West. Ankara re-affirmed Turkey’s commitment to NATO and crucially undertook wide-ranging political reforms that did away with many of the authoritarian legacies of the past, such as placing the military under civilian control and reforming the judicial system.
The new political, cultural, and economic openness helped Erdogan ride a coalition of pious Muslims, Kurds, cosmopolitan elites, big business, and average Turks to re-election with 47 percent of the popular vote in the summer of 2007, the first time any party had gotten more than 45 percent of the vote since 1983. This was unprecedented in Turkish politics. Yet Erdogan was not done. In 2011, the prime minister reinforced his political mystique with 49.95 percent of the popular vote.
Turkey, it seemed, had arrived. By 2012, Erdogan presided over the 17th-largest economy in the world, had become an influential actor in the Middle East, and the Turkish prime minister was a trusted interlocutor with none other than the president of the United States. Yet even as the AKP was winning elections at home and plaudits from abroad, an authoritarian turn was underway. In 2007, the party seized upon a plot in which elements of Turkey’s so-called deep state — military officers, intelligence operatives, and criminal underworld — sought to overthrow the government and used it to silence its critics. Since then, Turkey has become a country where journalists are routinely jailed on questionable grounds, the machinery of the state has been used against private business concerns because their owners disagree with the government, and freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure.