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Did Erdoğan finally get his Gezi?

Demonstrators hold an image of one of the young protesters killed on the third anniversary of Gezi Park protests. in Ankara, May 31, 2016. Press Association imag. All rights reserved.The last few days in Turkey have been
nothing short of a nightmare. What many thought would never happen happened
again: a military junta tried to overthrow the government. Whether it was due
to a lack of coordination, the resolution of the coup coalition within the
military to act at the last minute, or the thousands of people taking to
the streets to stop the coup, the junta was—to everyone’s relief – unsuccessful. Many agree that the ruling Justice and
Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan will gain unlimited power from
this, using the coup attempt to further curtail opposition and push through a
regime change from a parliamentary to a presidential system. However,
particularly western media has largely failed to take into account the role the
AKP’s political
base will play in this process and how it may change and direct the party’s and
President Erdoğan’s future
course.

Friday night, the night of the
attempted coup detat, was the first
time in the recent history of the Turkish Republic that such a large segment of
conservatives and religious citizens went out to own the streets (apart from
party meetings) in the name of democracy, or at least for their definition of
democracy. Though some commentators and politicians have argued that different
segments of society averted the coup together, displaying a rare show of
political unity in Turkey, it is probably safe to say that most of the
protestors at the scene of the attempted coup were either AKP voters or at
least ideologically close to the AKP.

This matters because it has always
been, since 2002, President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan at the center of attention, with Turkish politics
notoriously circling around his persona. The AKP has used Erdoğan’s political
leverage not only to strengthen its rule in Turkey but also to push through a
harsh neoliberal agenda. While the extent of social and political polarization
in Turkey has guaranteed Erdoğan and the AKP high support in elections, it has been argued that in recent years the increasingly paternalistic style
of both Erdoğan
and the party, which has become somewhat ignorant of the daily challenges faced
by Turkish citizens, has led to the party’s alienation of its political base. This also explains the
loss of votes in the June 2015 elections.

On Friday night, Erdoğan naturally
played a major role in mobilizing the masses when he connected to the private
news channel CNN Türk
via FaceTime, urging “his people” to take to the streets to advert the
coup. And it was these people who died, were injured, chanted, and – as it appears – lynched a number of soldiers that night, who were declared
heroes and martyrs after the coup was averted. The park on which Erdoğan planned to rebuild
the military barracks that were there during the Ottoman Empire, around which
the protests evolved, remained as a park and does so today.

During the anti-government Gezi
protests in the summer of 2013, Erdoğan clearly envisioned this sort of mobilization, organizing
countless “national
will” (milli irade) meetings. But in this regard he
failed: no significant counter-movement from his own electoral base emerged.
The “national
will” meetings the AKP set up during this time seemed too
organized, too stiff, with people being brought to the squares in buses, all
wearing the same AKP hats and holding the same-sized Turkish flags in their
hands. Accordingly they did not leave much of an impression but instead became
a frequent subject of mockery on social media. The Gezi protests ended about a
month after they had started, a fact not due to counter-mobilization but
violence-prone riot police leaving numerous protesters dead and injured. And,
most importantly, the park on which Erdoğan planned to rebuild the military
barracks that were there during the Ottoman Empire, around which the protests
evolved, remained as a park and does so today.

In my own encounters I frequently
noticed that many AKP supporters were not only alienated by the course taken by
the Gezi protests but also by the behavior of their then Prime Minister Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s
provocative style and the stubbornness with which he acted during the Gezi
protests were met with irritation rather than unwavering support among his own
constituency. So they stayed home. They did not necessarily support Gezi, but
they were not motivated enough to crash it either. This inability to mobilize
the crowds clearly scarred Erdoğan’s otherwise boundless confidence. Since 2013 Erdoğan has
mentioned the Gezi uprisings over and over again and so has the media close to
the government. They have labeled the events a “coup” against the
government, including conspiracy theories involving “western powers.” In fact,
many commentators have drawn the conclusion that Erdoğan is “obsessed” with Gezi.

Thanks to the failed military coup,
many have commented that Erdoğan, finally, got his own Gezi. Not surprisingly, he
joyously declared the Tuesday after the incident that the military barracks he
had planned for Gezi park will now be built “no matter whether
they want it or not.”
Who Erdoğan
obviously refers to as “they” are not the ones who plotted the coup
d
etat but Gezi
protestors and their supporters. The Turkish president at that point seemed to
have no interest in seizing the moment for building a broader anti-coup
coalition and possibly reaching some sort of ceasefire with societal opponents.

Political sociologist Cihan Tuğal a few
days after the attempted coup argued that this is a well-calculated risk. He
wrote, “given the
pro-regime numbers on the streets (and soldiers once again declared an enemy of
the nation), the fascistic actors within the regime have the opportunity to
sustain mass mobilisation and take the country in a more totalitarian direction.” This would  entail a
win-win situation for Erdoğan and the AKP: they will be able to enhance their power
while reinstating their organic relationship with the people. The greater part of the AKP’s base is gaining unprecedented political agency, and it is
important to closely watch the path this agency is taking.

While this is still a very likely
(and certainly scary) scenario, it remains to be seen how much the AKP and Erdoğan will
actually be able to direct and control the masses they finally mobilized. That
this might not be as easy as many commentators and probably Erdogan himself
thought, started to become clear over the last week, as the Turkish people
slowly got over their first shock.

On the one hand oppositional parties
and groups started to claim the streets not only to protest the coup but also
to challenge the current political regime and demand real democracy. On the
other hand, as writer Ömer
Laçiner notes, given the visuals of male protestors lynching soldiers
that had already surrendered, not all AKP supporters necessarily seem to
identify with some of the crowd that spilled out into the streets on the night
of the coup. It is probably safe to argue that neither Erdoğan, nor the AKP would be interested
in alienating their own middle and upper class constituency. Given these two
factors, it is no coincidence that Erdoğan’s
discourse seems to have gradually softened over the last days and his plans to
rebuild the military barracks in Gezi Park were not mentioned again. At the end
of the day the AKP still has an economy to manage.

What course Turkish politics and
society will take in the future is unclear and there is much reason to be
pessimistic. But one thing seems certain: the greater part of the AKP’s base is
gaining unprecedented political agency, and it is important to closely watch
the path this agency is taking.

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