The events unfolding in Turkey over the last few days are very telling. I’m not on the ground there, but plenty of people who are have been tweeting and posting on Facebook their experiences and impressions. It’s too early to convincingly declare the implications of the protests, but there are some larger processes at work here that are important to think about that, I think, will inevitably have some effect.
The AKP has been in power since 2002. No government—in a democratic, authoritarian, or mixed system—can be in control for that long without generating some frustration, resentment and opposition among the public. This is especially the case when the party in power pursues a specific political-ideological-economic agenda, bound to cause some dislocation and alienation.
The AKP has certainly done so. When it first came to power, analysts and pundits debated whether the party, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, were really moderate, reformed Islamists or simply disguised fundamentalist Islamists of the Welfare/Virtue/Felicity Party and Necmettin Erbakan kind.
I argued that both were Islamist, but just had different ways of expressing it in policy. Where Erbakan was belligerent and bulled his way forward, Erdoğan was more politic—and in doing so managed to get a lot more done than his predecessor, including removing the military’s ability to intervene in civilian politics.
With the Turkish Armed Forces no longer a serious threat (of its own volition, in addition to being forced out), other parties more a cardboard cutout than a serious political opposition, an economy that was already growing before it came to power, and broad support across different segments of the population, the AKP won an increasingly large share of the popular vote over three elections, culminating in about 50% of the vote in the 2011 poll.
This allowed the AKP to implement its foreign and domestic policy agendas, which were, in fact, tied together by a broader economic plan. Erdoğan’s own populism and ego increasingly came to the fore, engendering a detached approach to the average Turk (even while he displayed deep concern for and emotional attachments to Palestinians and Syrians) and underlined by expanding authoritarianism, shrinking tolerance for criticism, and a sense of infallibility.
At the moment there’s no serious contender to take advantage of these wide-ranging dissatisfactions; and anyway, Turkish politics has long been marked by the inability of a single party to represent a variety of interests (until the AKP). But perhaps one or more might arise before the next election, riding the momentum of the protests—if it can be maintained.
Depending on how events in Syria unfold—if more refugees stream into Turkey, more shells strike it, or more bombs target Turks—Erdoğan’s room for maneuvering might be further constrained.
On the other hand, Erdoğan might make some concessions here and there and be able to ride things out, weakened but not in danger. Especially if he’s able to move into a strengthened presidency, the protests will become more a footnote to him than a warning or something to be taken seriously. This could still, though, have an effect on the party’s ability to maintain its dominance.
Either way, we should think about the Taksim/Gezi protests as part of a long-term process. Turkey’s political, social, and economic structures are still changing, and the insertion of such a dramatic event could well alter their trajectories—either by the government consciously accounting for the protests, or by the government trying to ignore them and then having to account for the consequences of it.