What is going on in Turkey?
June 3, 2013 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand what's happening in Turkey.

Who are the protesters? What's their beef with Erdogan? How widespread is the anti-Erdogan sentiment among the Turkish people? What kind of social/economic/political/ethnic factions are in play here (for example, I gather that Erdogan's government and its supporters are more conservative/old/religious, and the protesters are more the opposite)? I've seen some video of Turkish police behaving like outright thugs (e.g., clubbing young women who are literally standing around doing nothing)—how much of this is going on? Do the Turkish police typically act with some degree of impunity?

I know very little (okay, nothing) of Turkish politics, and I never feel like I'm getting the full story from commercial news agencies. Basically, any background or anecdata you can provide will be helpful—and I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering. Thanks!
posted by escape from the potato planet to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

Have you seen this post on the Blue? There are some great links to more background in the comments.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:39 AM on June 3, 2013

This post has some good background info.
posted by tau_ceti at 6:51 AM on June 3, 2013

A very close family friend (more of a surrogate aunt) is from Turkey, and I asked her about this yesterday. She's Muslim, but a fairly liberal, very modern, very progressive person - has lived in the US for roughly the past 50 years, but regularly returns and visits Turkey. She's angry and rambled a bit, but what I gather is that she essentially blames the prime minister as being an arrogant conservative religious "piece of shit" (her words, not mine). Her belief is that this is a struggle against conservative Muslim Arab influence, a lack of checks and balances, rapidly eroding rights (especially in the past year), and a general obsession with power. She thinks PM Erdogan is more of a religious hack, than a real Muslim. She also mentioned that Erdogan blamed demonstrations on "drunks" - invalidating protestors, and blaming them on an alleged lack of morality. Family friend/aunt has never drank alcohol in her life, supports the protests, and supports reasonable alcohol consumption in Turkey. According to her, Turkish media and news stations are also not covering the protests, or doing so very minimally.
posted by raztaj at 7:06 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know much about Turkish politics but I was in Istanbul about six weeks ago. While we were there, there was a protest regarding a the demolition of a historic theater. From what I understand, the police overreacted in response to the protest, prompting another protest days later.

As an outsider with little knowledge of the country, I got the impression that Istanbul is at a crossroads. I think the letter of the law is secular. For example, it is illegal for women to wear complete face coverings but the laws aren't well enforced and I saw plenty of women wearing them. There's a clash between the conservative government and the growing population of young people who are more often liberal and struggling for employment. One of the reasons for the Arab Spring is that there is a big demographic bump in young people at a time of high unemployment. Historically, having a lot of young, unemployed people has been a precursor to social instability.

Also worth mentioning in my opinion is that Istanbul is a finalist for the 2020 Summer Olympics, competing with Tokyo and Madrid. People are proud that the city is being considered and hopeful that it could spur economic development. However, I don't think they're favored to win the bid which could lead to more issues.
posted by kat518 at 7:49 AM on June 3, 2013

I think people should keep in mind, that like most places, the large cities in Turkey are a lot more liberal than the countryside, and that Turkey is a democracy that freely elected a conservative government, and that the people protesting in Istanbul are likely not supported by the populace as a whole. This protest is pretty likely to not catch fire and result in the collapse of the government because of that, barring some kind of massacre by the government.
posted by empath at 9:43 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did not Ataturk westernize Turkey years ago? The theocracy that some Muslims want to install is against that tradition.
posted by Cranberry at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2013

Erdogan isn't establishing a theocracy, and the riots started over tearing down a park. This is closer to occupy wall street or the austerity protests in spain than it is to the arab spring. Which isn't to say their won't be political repercussions for excessive police force and so on, but I doubt that the stability of the country is threatened.
posted by empath at 11:12 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

What kind of social/economic/political/ethnic factions are in play here?

There are currently four parties in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, which represent the biggest factions in Turkish politics (and do not represent many more of the small ones at all).

CHP, currently considered the main opposition, is the founding party of the Republic. Atatürk created and led CHP as a vanguard party to implement an audacious set of social and political reforms: modernizing and planning the economy, subjugating religion to the state, and creating a new Turkish national identity.

The second paragraph of every news article ever written about Turkey describes it as a "secular democracy," but it didn't start that way. Secularism and the other Kemalist reforms (changing the alphabet, purging the language of Persian and Arabic words, promoting western dress, adopting European legal codes) were imposed top down on a peasant population displaced and impoverished by a decade of war. (The collapse of the Ottoman Empire started with the Balkan wars in 1912, continued through World War I, and ended with the Turkish war of independence, which lasted another four years). Mustafa Kemal was an impressive leader and politician, but Kemalism was never a popular movement, or a democratic one—Turkey was a one party state with CHP in charge for 20 years after the creation of the republic.

As the leaders of a single party state, CHP did a great job stamping out political opposition, especially on the left. But since Turkey's first multiparty elections in 1950, they've never formed a majority government. In my opinion, the original sin of Turkish politics is the suppression of opposition parties by CHP in the early republic. The urge to preserve Kemalist reforms at all costs by controlling party politics didn't eliminate political opposition, but it did prevent Turkey from developing the political tolerance necessary for real democracy. Instead, opposition festered until the 50s, and turned almost immediately into winner-takes-all politics. And though the Kemalist revolution was successful at transforming the state, it didn't transform society: Turkey has basically been ruled by center-right parties ever since.

Anyways, over time, CHP has positioned themselves as center-left social democrats. Their largest constituency is still secular, cosmopolitan, urban elites in Istanbul and the Aegean coast.

MHP is a far-right ultranationalist party. (It is amusing to see Erdogan described as a fascist when there is in fact a whole block of them seated in the national assembly). In the 60s and 70s they were known for assassinating leftist leaders, but they have since toned down the extracurricular activities and managed to win a few seats.

Kurds make up the rest of the opposition. Around 20% of the population is Kurdish, but Kurdish parties have only been active in Turkish politics since the early 90s. For years, they were regularly banned from politics for "threatening the indivisible unity of the Turkish state," which has had the unintended consequence of making Kurdish parties very resilient. Turkey has the highest electoral threshold in the world—parties must win at least 10% of the vote to win any parliamentary seats. (This was put in place by the military following the 1980 coup as a measure to prevent extremist parties from winning too many seats). Kurdish candidates have developed a workaround for the vote threshold: they stand for election as independents, then form a party once seated in the assembly. They also keep all the paperwork for a new party on hand, along with a set of backup candidates, in case the currently active party is shut down (right now it's called the BDP). Their constituency is mostly ethnic Kurds, but they're to the left of CHP, and have been winning an increasing (but still basically negligible) share of non-Kurdish youth votes.

And then there's AK, which has now run a majority government for 11 years—longest of any freely elected party.

The late 90s were a tumultuous time in Turkish party politics, with a number of weak, brief coalition governments. Political infighting, corruption, and an internal war with Kurdish insurgents didn't help an already-huge deficit, and in 2001 the stock market crashed, the lira tanked, and Turkey accepted an IMF bailout and restructuring agreement.

Until AK, Islamist parties had not been a huge success. (Though they had substantial popular support, they were subject to the same pattern as the Kurds, banned for anti-secular activity about as soon as they were established). A series of parties affiliated with a movement called "Mîlli Görüş" were most successful, and their leader even briefly became prime minister in 1997, but was forced out of office by the military. Support for political Islam, opposition to European integration, and anti-Zionism were major pillars of Milli Görüş ideology.

From his early political career through his election as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan was affiliated with Milli Görüş parties. In 2002 he joined other young Islamists to found AK and make a bid for national office. AK broke from the Islamist establishment and positioned itself as a pro-European, market liberal, social conservative party. In fact, they still refuse to describe themselves as Islamist and prefer the term "conservative democratic." Whether or not you believe this was a sincere change of heart will probably determine how you feel about Erdogan. It's not surprising that many Turks, already hyper vigilant about threats to secularism, are suspicious that he hasn't renounced the radical views of his youth or his ties to extremist religious teachers (oh hey, does this sound familiar?). On the other hand, Islamist politics was going nowhere fast when parties were being disbanded and banned from politics every year, and Erdogan has always been pragmatic.

In addition to Erdogan's camp, which came to AK through Mîlli Görüş (which itself came out of the Nakşibendi sufi order), there's a block of the party affiliated with the Gülen movement (descended from the Nurcus, another religious group). The Gülen movement is fascinating and I won't do justice to it here, but it emphasizes interfaith dialogue, service to the religious community, and a sort of communitarian gospel of wealth. It's also a huge eminence grise of Turkish politics, and plays a major part in lots of political conspiracy theories. (Not without reason—Wikileaks cables confirmed a long-running rumor that Gülen followers control the National Police, and Gülen has encouraged his followers to seek positions with political influence). Abdullah Gül, currently president, is affiliated with this wing of the movement.

Anyways, the market liberal anti-corruption platform worked, especially following the financial crisis, and AK won a two-thirds majority in 2002. Since then, they've been reelected two more times, each with a higher share of the vote (though not always with more seats—the rules on apportionment are weird).

To get a sense of just how dominant AK is, see this map of the 2011 general election results. This was considered a pretty good showing for the opposition, and yet they still control about 60% of the seats in parliament. AK has a strong party base among conservatives, the religious, and small and medium business community (there's overlap between all three). The key to their success, though, is that they've been successful at siphoning votes from the other three factions—liberals who sometimes side with CHP voted for AK in 2002, and they've made an effort at appealing to nationalist and Kurdish voters. None of the opposition parties can do the same, and AK has become the only party that counts. This is a difficult position for democratic politics.

How widespread is the anti-Erdogan sentiment among the Turkish people?

Not as widespread as the protests might lead you to believe. I suspect Erdogan could call a snap election today and AK would easily win back most of its seats. As of last month, AK was polling at 42%. That number might take a hit depending on how long the protests last and how violent the police response gets, but unless they coalesce into an organized opposition, they won't change the demographics I described above: there's a huge "silent majority" (or at least silent plurality) likely to stick with AK, and this is an enormous source of frustration for an opposition that's been shut out of politics by completely legitimate democratic means.

Among this minority, however, anti-Erdogan sentiment is extremely strong and very hostile. Some of this is wrapped up with class issues—Erdogan is a gauche, short-tempered guy who grew up in a poor neighborhood, and though the opposition likes to style themselves defenders of the poor against the neoliberals, they are often unwilling to admit that even the urban poor are conservative and religious. Some of it is the standard intolerance for the other side that seems built into Turkish politics. And some of it is substantive—imagine how MetaFilter would react if a Republican president banned beer sales after 10pm.

Who are the protesters?
The Gezi Park protesters started as a group of students and young people, and this is still the biggest contingent out there getting teargassed and building barricades. Turkey has a huge population of young people—half of the country is under 30. The affiliation with Occupy is not coincidental. This is a very similar movement by young people who feel excluded and unrepresented by the party system. And it suffers from some of the same flaws—many of my Turkish peers have told me that they don't bother to vote, or lodge protest votes for the Greens or Communist party. In the last few days, it's become a flashpoint for the extreme anti-Erdogan sentiment described above. There's currently no very effective outlet for this in the political system, since AK has an overwhelming majority, so the anti-AK minority seized the chance to let out some aggression. This is the weird paradox of the AK party: they're now running a what amounts to a democratic one-party state.

I don't want to sound like an apologist for Erdogan. If I was still in Istanbul, I'd probably be out there too, and I hope that this can grow into some sort of more effective political opposition. (I hope so, but I'm doubtful). Erdogan has become something of an autocrat over the last few years, using tools of state to arrest journalists and trump up charges against political enemies, and has started laying the foundations of an Islamist nanny state. But if I had a vote, I'd face the same dilemma as my Turkish friends—none of the parties seem any good.

Do the Turkish police typically act with some degree of impunity?
Turkey has a national police force, controlled by the interior ministry, and I think the fact that accountability is a few levels removed from the municipalities plays into this. The police have actually been acting with less impunity recently, but they've let loose a little with these protests. Turkey has a long history of suppressing left-labor movements, and these are the sort of protests and police reaction that used to happen every May 1. In recent years, police have laid off and let protests take place (May Day even became a public holiday), but yeah, any suspicious gathering without a permit is likely to get gassed. There's a visible police presence in public areas even when protests aren't active—the riot control vehicles you may have seen in some of the videos are usually prominently parked in public areas.
posted by ecmendenhall at 7:27 PM on June 3, 2013 [16 favorites]

"Erdogan isn't establishing a theocracy, and the riots started over tearing down a park."

This seems overly simplified. The tearing down of the park was the straw that broke the camel's back for a society that has been frustrated with its government for quite some time now. I think it is worth mentioning that there are over 80 malls in Istanbul, and they are massive structures several times the size of an average American mall. In other words, Istanbul needs another mall like I need a hole in my head. So for the government to casually knock down a historic park in the heart of Taksim (which is full of shops!) in favor of mega-mall #80-something is slightly absurd.

But resentment had been brewing long before this park episode. I don't know how big of a majority/minority the protesters make up, but there is a solid number of modern, secular Turks who steadfastly oppose Erdogan and have wanted him gone for years. In favor of what, I'm not sure. The state of Turkish politics is in chaos.

I remember a few months back, the Turkish government tried to impose new uniforms on Turkish Airlines flight attendants-- a company that has been trying to cultivate a more "European" image. They hired a designer who was famous for creating garments for religious women who cover up, and the proposed uniforms looked pseudo-Amish. It just felt like things were regressing. These subtle controls on the lives of women in particular are the symptom of a much bigger problem. (I didn't follow up on that story so I'm not sure what ended up happening.)

I digress...

The alcohol bans also really rubbed people the wrong way. It's easy for us to underestimate the gravity of the situation from across the pond. If some of the things the government in Turkey has been doing were taking place in America, people would go apesh*t. Yes, it's a "democracy" and Erdogan was elected in some way or another. Democracy does not mean a leader gets to do whatever he wants because he was "freely elected."
posted by DayTripper at 10:20 PM on June 3, 2013

Claire Berlinski is in Istanbul and writes about the riots.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:01 AM on June 4, 2013

Here is the first opinion poll since the protests began. AK is down from 41% to 38%, CHP up from 28% to 32%. It's definitely a bump for CHP, but still a strong plurality for AK—very few of their supporters seem to have changed their minds about the government. Frankly, it's pretty astonishing and worrisome that this sort of behavior has only caused a 3% swing.
posted by ecmendenhall at 11:41 PM on June 11, 2013

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