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Turkey: A House Divided

The EU Commission's progress report deals with a polarized society and a government that takes repressive measures against citizens who assert their democratic rights.
The Gezi Park demonstrations have opened up fault lines in Turkish society.

The Gezi Park demonstrations have opened up fault lines in Turkish society.

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Originally published at Gatestone Institute

There is no doubt that the Gezi Park demonstrations in May and June, which spread to most of Turkey, represent a seismic change in Turkish society and have opened up fault lines which earlier may not have been apparent. What began as a demonstration against the “development” of a small park in the center of Istanbul ended as a widespread protest against the AKP government — and particularly Prime Minister Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule.

The European Commission in its latest progress report on Turkey has recognized this change when it writes of “the emergence of vibrant, active citizenry;” and according to Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül, who in the report is praised for his conciliatory role, this development is “a new manifestation of our democratic maturity.” The Turkish government, however, has chosen to see these demonstrations as a challenge to its authority and has reacted accordingly.

The report mentions various repressive measures taken by the government, including the excessive use of force by the police, columnists and journalists being fired or forced to resign after criticizing the government, television stations being fined for transmitting live coverage of the protests and the round-up by the police of those suspected of taking part in the demonstrations.

However, there is, in the EU report, no mention of the campaign of vilification led by the Prime Minister against the protesters, or reprisals against public employees who supported or took part in the protests; also, measures taken to prevent the recurrence of mass protests, such as tightened security on university campuses, no education loans for students who take part in demonstrations and a ban on chanting political slogans at football matches.

Not only the demonstrators themselves have been targeted but also the international media, which Prime Minister Erdoğan has accused of being part of an international conspiracy to destabilize Turkey. The “interest rate lobby” and “the Jewish diaspora” have also been blamed. As the Commission notes, the Turkish Capital Markets Board has launched an investigation into foreign transactions to account for the 20% drop on the Istanbul Stock Exchange between May 20 and June 19, which had more to do with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s tapering than the Gezi Park protests.

In August, however, a report on the Gezi Park protests by the Eurasia Global Research Center (AGAM), and chaired by an AKP deputy, called the government’s handling of the situation “a strategic mistake” and pointed out that democracy-valuing societies require polls and dialogue between people and the local authorities.

Polarization

The Commission is correct, therefore, when it concludes that a divisive political climate prevails, including a polarizing tone towards citizens, civil society organizations and businesses. This conclusion is reinforced by the observation that work on political reform is hampered by a persistent lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise among political parties. Furthermore, the report emphasizes the need for systematic consultation in law-making with civil society and other stakeholders.

This division was underlined by Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek in June, when, at a conference, he deplored the lack of a spirit of compromise in intellectual or political circles. This lack is not only illustrated by the occasional fistfight between parliamentary deputies, but also when the AKP government in July voted against its own proposal in the mistaken belief that it had been submitted by the opposition. Or when the opposition two days later passed its own bill while the government majority had gone off to prayers.

President Gül, in a message of unity to mark the start of Eid al-Fitr (in August, at the end of Ramadan), had called on Turkey to leave polarization behind and unite for the European Union membership bid. But to create a united Turkey will be difficult, given the attitude of the present government. Even the democratization package presented by Prime Minister Erdoğan at the end of September does not indicate any substantive change in the government’s majoritarian approach to democracy.

Irrespective of the Prime Minister’s reference to international human rights and the EU acquis [legislation], both lifting the headscarf ban for most public employees and a number of concessions to the Kurdish minority can be seen as a move to boost Erdoğan’s popularity ahead of the local elections in March.

A curious addition to the package, an amendment to the Penal Code making it a punishable offence to intervene in people’s lifestyles, was nullified a week later when a TV presenter was fired after the AKP government’s spokesman, Hüseyin Çelik, complained that her cleavage was “extreme.” The sense of outrage driving the Gezi Park protests was, in fact, directed at the government’s intervention in people’s lifestyles, in opposition to Erdogan’s avowed aim to create “a religious generation”.

On October 22 the EU’s General Affairs Council will discuss the opening of a new negotiating chapter with Turkey on regional policies; negotiations had been delayed after Turkey’s crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters. The EU’s commitment to continuing Turkish accession talks, however, is no longer matched by a corresponding interest from Turkey.

Polls indicate a waning support for EU membership — only 19% now believe Turkey will become a member — and only recently in the Turkish daily, Star, Prime Minister Erdogan’s chief adviser, Yiğit Bulut, argued that Turkey should abandon its bid, in favor of becoming a leader of “a new world order” emerging in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

In October at the Istanbul Forum, another of Erdoğan’s chief advisers, Ibrahim Kalın, dismissed the Eurocentric world vision and spoke of the conscious decision of Turkish policy makers to redefine Turkey’s strategic priorities in the 21st century. Turkey’s decision to adopt a Chinese air defense system, rather than one from another NATO partner, can be seen as a step in this new geopolitical orientation.

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