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Turkey: For a park and a few trees

Saturday 15 June 2013, by siawi3

by Ilker Ayturk

Source: June 10 2013, The Indian Express

The urban riots have exposed the unpleasant face of the ’Turkish model’

In J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Ents are tree-like creatures, known for their patience. However, when their leader Treebeard finds out that the wicked wizard Saruman felled thousands of trees, he leads a horde of his race to destroy the wizard’s stronghold in the “Last March of the Ents”.

In a replay of Tolkien’s story, thousands of members of Istanbul’s urban middle class descended on Taksim Square on June 1 and occupied the European centre of this humongous city. What took elderly women, white-collar workers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, gay people and students to the streets was a common desire to stop government plans to demolish the Gezi Park next to Taksim Square. For months, the Turkish prime minister and former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been repeating his determination to rebuild a replica of the Ottoman army barracks, torn down in 1940 to create space for the park. On May 28, a handful of protesters organised a sit-in at Gezi Park to prevent further felling of trees. Police violence against peaceful protesters triggered clashes in the downtown area and spiralled out of control.

Demonstrations after June 1 were not just about the park and trees any more. Protesters now turned against Erdogan’s heavy-handed rule, and his attitude certainly didn’t help. During that weekend, the PM appeared live on TV to address the crowds: gone was the brash and self-assured leader; Erdogan looked angry but visibly shaken. Unfortunately, he further fanned the flames by calling protesters “looters” and threatening to dispatch a million of his supporters.

Urban riots of such intensity and scope are a first in modern Turkish history. Although the protesters do not want to change the system, they are fed up with Erdogan’s top-down style of decision-making and his monopolisation of power. Protests are not led by a single leader. There are many environmentalist, women’s, LGBT and political platforms speaking for a variety of groups. The truly striking phenomenon is the predominance of the youth — the so-called “1990s Generation” — who are politically non-affiliated. The typical faultlines of Turkish politics, which have pitted Kemalists against conservatives, secularists against Islamists, nationalists against Kurds, left-wingers against right-wingers, do not seem to capture the essence of the riots.

Ever since the beginning of multi-party democratic politics in Turkey in 1950, Islamic-leaning, conservative masses, who dominated the ballot box and wrangled with the secularists, enjoyed the support of the Turkish military and judiciary. If Turkish democracy survived many interruptions, it was because there was no winner. That is, until 2002, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, with Islamist roots, came to power and slowly but methodically neutralised the military and the justices. The result was not a victory of democracy but a big power vacuum filled by Erdogan alone. With no checks on his leadership, the PM was emboldened to pass legislation that would make abortion nearly impossible, to call social drinkers “alcoholics and drunkards”, to promote imam schools at the expense of Turkey’s secular education system, to impose censorship on the press and to express his desire “to raise pious generations”.

The Gezi Park riots, however, have shown the limits to Erdogan’s power. Rioters have dented his image as a “doer”, driving a wedge between him and the moderates in his government and party. He is no longer able to denounce his opponents as militarist, undemocratic plotters. Muslims in the Middle East are now exposed to a different, unpleasant face of the so-called “Turkish model”. These are all terrible setbacks for Erdogan and his party. And if the whip of the volatile Turkish economy has not yet beaten Erdogan into submission, mounting losses at the Istanbul stock exchange could. And all this because of a park and a couple of trees.

The writer is assistant professor of political science, Bilkent University, Ankara