Erdogan Fails to Understand the Protesters

By Emre Tuncalp
posted on July 4, 2013 in Global Development, Politics and Society

The demonstrations that started on May 27 as a peaceful call to preserve Istanbul’s Gezi Park quickly became the biggest protest movement Turkey has seen in decades. The spontaneous nature of the protests caught everyone by surprise.  While careful Turkey observers had been aware of the grievances that ignited the unrest, no one could predict its scale, intensity, and persistence. The Gezi protests, which have been going on for close to a month, were an attempt at self-expression by Turkey’s newly emerging middle class but included people from all aspects of the country’s society and quickly spread to more than 70 cities.

If the people were surprised, the government—to be more precise, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—was truly astonished by the protests. His initial reaction seemed to have switched between a state of disbelief and disregard and one of anger and contempt. The former was visible in his decision to move ahead with his scheduled trip to North Africa when the protests were at their peak, and the latter exhibited itself in several rallies his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) organized in reaction to the protests, at which his polarizing rhetoric reached new heights. The use of brute force against the protesters—four people have been killed and 8,000 injured according to Turkish Medical Association—and Erdogan’s uncompromising, menacing rhetoric have further fueled the protests, as more and more people rushed into the streets after each speech.

Though the AKP government has brought economic growth, initiated important EU reforms, and increased Turkey’s integration with global markets in its more than ten years in power, the Gezi park protests show that the style of governance of Erdogan and the AKP has become unsustainable domestically. The protesters’ disenchantment seems to have caused a social explosion—but regrettably, it was one that the government misread, resorting to the same heavy-handed tactics in its response that the protesters were complaining about in the first place.

While it is true that chants asking the AKP to resign from power have been frequently heard during the protests, the common denominator was not the demonstrators’ desire to overthrow the government but rather to make their voices heard, expressing their demands for fundamental democratic freedoms such as freedom of speech and the right to assemble. The ineffective and feeble position of Turkey’s main opposition parties and the unabashed censorship that has been applied by the AKP government on local media, have further aggravated the protesters’ frustration.

Failing to come to terms with the reality that the protests might have been caused by his own policies, Erdogan instead chose to attack “international conspirators” and their “allies” in Turkey. This was perhaps the most surprising aspect of his rhetoric on the subject, given the prime minister’s and AKP government’s successful track record in projecting a positive perception of Turkey abroad. It was startling to see a government that has accomplished so much, willing to adopt such a drastic tone that could risk wiping out that progress.  Erdogan has given a large number of speeches since the beginning of the protests in which he attempted to explain the unrest through various theories, including blaming the international “interest rate” lobby for organizing it in an alleged attempt to profit off Turkey’s woes. He and his supporters similarly expressed several other theories whose rationality and seriousness was questioned by both domestic and international commentators. These attempts went hand in hand with the government’s full-blown attack on foreign media for “provoking” the people by disseminating misleading information. Soon, a full-blown rhetoric of victimhood was on display, which quickly morphed into a pursuit of revenge as the prime minister pledged to punish all those responsible for the protests.  

Erdogan’s polarizing language was aimed at rallying his own AKP supporters against the protesters. Erdogan has resorted to this “us vs. them” tactic several times over the past few weeks, playing to the religious and conservative sensitivities of his party’s base, calling the protesters plunderers, terrorists and marginal groups with no respect for religion, conservative sensitivities or moral values of the society.  

In reality, the protesters’ main demands are much simpler than the conspiracy envisioned by Erdogan. Simply put, the protesters are frustrated by what they see as the AKP’s defective version of democracy, Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic attitude, and a government that limits personal freedoms and whose rule impinges on everyday life. Legislations restricting television programs and Internet content, growing pressure on media freedom, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol are just a few issues that have snowballed into the present situation.  

Erdogan’s personal style and attitude have not done him any favors, either. His patriarchal, prescribing, and opinionated tone in discussing them, reflecting his genuine belief that he knows what is the best for the citizens of Turkey, has rapidly fed into the conception that Erdogan is trying to impose his own values and homogenize Turkish society. He also seems to care about only those who he regards as his constituency. His repetitive arguments implying that those who are not happy with his policy decisions have nothing to do but wait until the next elections highlighted this majoritarian understanding of democracy, further marginalizing and angering the demonstrators. 

Erdogan, who is from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Istanbul, has always displayed an assertive and at times headstrong attitude. In fact, this is one of the reasons why he’s become one of the most popular leaders in Turkey’s history since the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This tone also has played well to his conservative base and fed into the charismatic figure he’s portrayed. In that respect, perhaps his response to the protests should not come as a surprise, although the defiant tone has been elevated to unprecedented heights during the protests.  As the prime minister put it himself, during one of the speeches- in response to the demonstrators, “this Tayyip Erdogan will not change.”  Instead of trying to soothe the tension on the streets, he chose to officially start his election campaign and seek to intimidate his opponents by organizing pro-AKP rallies around Turkey. His insistence on not “giving in” to the protesters also reflects his misconception of who they are and what they want and represent. This is particularly surprising considering his remarkable success in reading public opinion in Turkey up until this latest episode.

The Gezi Park protest movement has caused a new dynamic to emerge in Turkey. A new generation of young people has been politicized for the first time on a grassroots level, taking to the streets and demonstrating their willingness to pursue the struggle for individual freedoms and a more inclusionary democracy in a loud and clear manner. Their demands included things as basic as the state being accountable to the people (rather than the other way around), more public dialogue, more tolerance towards peaceful dissent, a pluralistic understanding of democracy, and leaders that don’t meddle with citizens’ daily life. The Occupy Wall Street-style forums that have appeared in many parks across the country in the second half of June have an atmosphere of free and lively debate and highlight the willingness to pursue this path through the democratic process and dialogue.

The way Erdogan reacted to the protests has proved his opponents’ point about the AKP’s ruling style. It was his rhetoric and his government’s failure to understand the new paradigm represented by the protests that exacerbated the situation. It is now clear that the government must fully grasp the changing realities and demands of the newly emerging middle class in order for social cohesion and stability to return to the country.

Regrettably, however, even though various cabinet members and President Abdullah Gul himself said that the message of the protesters has been received, signs so far have suggested otherwise. As the month mark passes since the protests started on May 27, Turkey is entering an intense election period (local and presidential elections are set for 2014, while the general election will follow in 2015) with a society as polarized as it has been in decades. Despite the protesters’ demands for more dialogue and understanding, the busy election calendar is likely to make Erdogan and the AKP even less likely to adopt a more reconciliatory tone; he has already switched to campaign mode, seeking to appeal to his conservative base.  Hopefully, common sense and a more cool-headed approach will prevail on both sides in the potentially volatile and critical months ahead.


Emre Tuncalp is a Director at Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington DC-based risk advisory firm.