Anger at political leaders is not new in İstanbul. In 532, rival groups in the then Constantinople united in anger at the Emperor, Justinian. 30,000 people died and half the city burned to the ground in the Nika riots. Justinian, needing a stern word from his wife, Theodora, only regained control by bribing one of the groups.
Justinian had few worries about democratic rights. Modern-day Turkey’s leaders have plenty. On May 28th, much of the country exploded in a paroxysm of anger. The focus was the increasing authoritarianism and paternalism of the Prime Minister, Racep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In power since 2003, Erdoğan has led Turkey at a time of huge change. After many years of political paralysis and economic turmoil during the 1990s, his time in office has brought stability and economic transformation. Average incomes grew from $2,800 in 2001 to around $10,000 in 2011.
That economic transformation has brought a development boom to İstanbul. More than $80bn of state-supported development include plans for the world’s largest airport, a new super-port and the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus.
But, rapid growth has a price. That price, at Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul, was deemed too high by some. Tucked at the back of fume-filled Taksım Square, the tiny park, just nine acres, is earmarked to be redeveloped. The proposals, firmly supported by Erdoğan, are to build a replica of the former Ottoman-era barracks that once sat where the park is now. Contained within will be a shopping centre.
Research has demonstrated the psychological benefits of access to green spaces. In a city where only 1.5% of the land mass is green space, it is unsurprising that some people want to protect what little there is. 70 or so people gathered to stop the bulldozers from razing trees. They were met by riot police firing tear gas. Thousands quickly poured onto İstanbul’s streets, angry at the government’s handling of the situation. Erdoğan’s reaction to legitimate protest served to underline the reason for the anger.
The national venting of frustration now includes a two-day strike. It is rooted in his autocratic style and a not-so-subtle moralising. Those, for example, who opposed new restrictions on the sale of alcohol were “alcoholics.” Such attitudes caused the protests to spread quickly. By June 2nd, 1,700 people had been arrested in 67 cities.
Protestors charged Erdoğan with being a dictator. Bemused, he dismissed those who oppose him for simply wanting to do what is best for Turkey. He triumphantly declared that the redevelopment of Gezi Park would continue. He dismissed the protests as undemocratic, blaming them on the opposition and extremists. He declared that if the protestors massed 100,000 people on the streets, he would gather one million.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a dominant force in Turkish politics. It won just under 50% of the popular vote in 2011, increasing its support from both 2002 and 2007. The opposition is ineffective and divided. Demands for the Prime Minister’s resignation began on the streets. The very lack of an effective opposition has increased Erdoğan’s hubris, much the same way as happened with Margaret Thatcher over the Poll Tax during her final years in power.
Public anger also mounted at the Turkish media. Often controlled by business groups with close links to the government, the media largely chose to ignore the first days of protests. Social media became the focus for information. This allowed Erdoğan to decry the medium as a “curse” and a vehicle for lies.
“Turkey’s democracy is maturing and civil society has taken root,” declared The Economist. Protestors may actually have to thank Erdoğan for this. Reforms since 2002 have curtailed the power of the military. In previous generations, the army may well have stepped in by now and simply removed the AKP from power. Citizens are, instead, choosing to defend their rights.
Some early commentary compared Taksım Square with Tahrir Square, and the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, in 2011. Others said that was overblown. After all, they said, Turkey is a democracy. But, as Stephen Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Koplow of the Israel Institute, as well as protestors on the streets of İstanbul and Ankara, point out, successful democracy is about more than elections.
President Gül, after five days of protests, told the people on the streets that their concerns had been heard. Erdoğan promptly flew to North Africa. Yet, two of his dearest wishes might require some humility on his part. He does not hide his desire to be the next President, a post which he hopes will have increased powers under a new Constitution. A more conciliatory tone might be needed to secure both.