What follows below is the original, unedited version of my oped in the Financial Times today, for those who cannot access it.
(UPDATE: I should add that neither the title of the FT piece nor the subtitle is mine. The subtitle in the print edition “A political class has turned violent to mask its weaknesses” is misleading and has little to do with the content of my piece; I have no idea why the FT found it apt.)
The protests that engulfed Turkey in recent days caught by surprise even those observers who, like me, have been vehement critics of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. What started as a small demonstration against the planned demolition of a rare green space in the middle of Istanbul has escalated into violent confrontations nationwide involving tens of thousands of disaffected Turks of all political stripes.
The immediate cause was police brutality. Turks are used to rough behaviour by their police, but the images circulating in social media this time caused widespread outrage. The preponderance of head wounds suggested that police were firing tear gas canisters directly at protestors’ heads. One victim was Ahmet Şık, an intrepid journalist previously jailed on trumped-up charges, whose photo with a bloody gash on his head was widely circulated.
Erdoğan’s reaction stoked the fire. He was at his polarizing best, threatening to turn his supporters loose on the streets, calling the protestors “bums” and social media “the greatest menace to society.” Protestors also turned their wrath at mainstream media, which showed great reluctance to cover the events, no doubt under government pressure. CNN’s Turkish affiliate chose to air a documentary on penguins during some of the worst clashes.
Despite Erdoğan’s attempt to tar them as extremists, it seems clear that the bulk of the protestors are asking for basic rights: the right to assemble and protest peacefully, have a say against excessive commercialization of public spaces, and be treated with respect and without police brutality. Neither is this a struggle between secularists and Islamists, as much of the Western media is wont to portray it. It is abuse of power by Erdoğan’s government, straight and simple, that unites the protestors.
The protests are also an indication of the weakness of political parties opposing Erdoğan. Organized along the increasingly irrelevant cleavages that have traditionally divided Turkish society, opposition parties have been unable to channel and capitalize on the discontent that has been building up. Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia has largely discredited itself as well, having continued to provide support to Erdoğan long after his illiberal tactics had become plain to see.
Many in the West give Erdoğan credit for the performance of the Turkish economy, having sent the military back to its barracks, and the recent peace process with the Kurdish insurgents. Yet look closely at each of these, and the lustre vanishes pretty quickly.
On the economic front, the best that can be said is that his government avoided big mistakes. Growth was based on unsustainable levels of external borrowing, and has not been particularly distinguished by emerging-country standards. Public works have been marked by widespread cronyism.
Meanwhile civilian control over the military was achieved through a series of show trials involving massive violations of due process – with rampant use of planted and fabricated evidence against accused officers. Rather than close the book on the military, Erdoğan’s tactics have opened up new wounds that will continue to fester.
Finally, the Kurdish opening has more to do with Erdoğan’s efforts to amend the constitution and ascend to (a more powerful) presidency, than with any genuine desire for reconciliation. As his previous flip flops on the Kurdish conflict shows, he would quickly change tack if short-term political calculations required otherwise.
The main beneficiary of Erdoğan’s weakness may well be the Gülen movement, the powerful network led by the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan and the Gülenists made common cause until recently to defeat their common enemy, the military and the secularist old guard. But with that task accomplished, they have been increasingly at odds. The Gülen movement does not want Erdoğan to become too powerful, while Erdoğan is wary of Gülenist machinations within the police and judiciary. The movement likes to promote President Abdullah Gül, who is much closer to it, as a tolerant, more democratic alternative to Erdoğan.
That the Gülen movement watches Erdoğan take the rap for the protests carries more than a hint of paradox, as Gülenists are known to be particularly well represented in the police. Supposedly moderate, the movement has been closely linked to some of the worst police and judicial abuses under Erdoğan.
Sadly, there is no organized political movement that can give voice and representation to the protestors that have made their point so loudly and clearly in recent days. So it will be the competition between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement, along with developments on the Kurdish front, that defines the future of Turkish politics.
Having missed Turkey’s authoritarian turn (or turned a blind eye to it), Turkey’s friends should know that none of the established players in this drama has strong democratic credentials. The challenge is to avoid another facile narrative about democratization and speak clearly against political, judicial, and human rights abuses in Turkey – whatever the source.