Modern societies are infinitely complex entities. But every now and then singular events furnish a surprising, if ephemeral, sense of clarity. Turkey’s recent Gezi Park crisis is one fitting example. What began as an innocuous sit-in against the proposed development of a small green space adjoining Istanbul’s main Taksim Square quickly escalated into a prolonged nation-wide uprising, courtesy of gross government miscalculation to try and quash the protestors with disproportionate force. The result: two weeks of clashes that left in its wake five dead, thousands injured, and an ever deeper schism between PM Erdoğan’s conservative rule and the secular segments of Turkish society. In the process the country’s image as a calm harbour in a turbulent region has been heavily tarnished, the exact economic and political costs of which remain to be priced. For information on the events and some interesting commentary, see here, here and here. What clarity can we glean from these events? Mainly, that the recent policy path of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is no longer sustainable, as I argue in four broad points below. It is high time the AKP come to terms with plain realities on the ground and retool its priorities.
The first point is about Turkey’s democratic prospects. Now, the Western media’s post-Gezi portrayal of Erdoğan as a latter-day sultan is overkill given the AKP has won three successive democratic elections fair and square. The fact remains, however, that the recent years have witnessed an inordinate concentration of power at the PM’s hands. This was due in part to the AKP’s successful neutralisation of Turkey’s old-school military-judicial secular elite that for decades imposed undemocratic boundaries upon the authority of elected civilian rulers. Replace that elite with government-friendly folk in a political landscape characterised by a leader-dominant hegemonic party such as the AKP, and what you get is a centripetal power dynamic that blurs the checks and balances between the PM and the rest of the state machinery. Compounding the problem is Erdoğan’s recent plans to morph Turkey’s parliamentary regime into a presidential one at a time when his political rhetoric becomes increasingly polarising. The foreseeable end of that path is a bizarre system, a democratically elected but by definition undemocratically governing autocracy. Surely this is not what the AKP intends to accomplish as a strategic goal, but the effect will nonetheless be the same, regardless of who leads the party (or any other ruling party) in the future.
Second, there is the issue of the fine dividing line between social policy and social engineering. The Turks that took to the streets predominantly represent the fourth generation of Turkey’s Westernised middle and upper-middle classes, who view the government’s recent policies concerning the education system, women’s reproductive rights, and alcohol regulations as direct interference with their long-established modern lifestyles. They feel excluded, marginalised, and now publicly insulted by the top-down moralist advances of a ruling party—a party they see as openly negating the built-in pluralism of Turkish society. The complication for the government here is two-fold. On the one side, this highly diverse group of discontented Turks will not simply give in to the revanchist impulses of the new conservative elite. Not only are they “beyond salvation” by legislative means, but they will become further radicalised and hardened with every repressive push from above. This is especially true for the university youth that overcame the fear threshold en masse, manning barricades in major cities for two weeks. On the other side, this sizeable minority in fact represents the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s educated labour force. They are either current or soon-to-be professionals who may not rule the country, but do certainly make it run. The AKP cannot hope to the come out socially or economically unscathed from an all-out war of values with these disgruntled segments of the Turkish public.
This connects with the third issue, the economy. Like most emerging nations, Turkey performed reasonably (if not remarkably) well during the worldwide growth years of the early-to-mid-2000s, but its record since the global economic crisis is more chequered. At first it seemed to bounce back fast from the crisis, but growth has now decelerated sharply, realising at 2.2 percent in 2012, with the current year projections remaining “under 4 percent.” More alarming is the quality of Turkish growth. The AKP deserves credit for facilitating macroeconomic stability, but in more than a decade in power it failed to break Turkey’s historic pattern of foreign capital-dependent growth. The result is a sticky correlation between growth rates and high levels of current account deficit, meaning consumption-driven, debt-led development increasingly financed by hot money flows. This has made the economy far more vulnerable to external shocks compared to a few years ago, and at this time it cannot tolerate Gezi-type intense political instability which could rock investor confidence. Yet the current account problem is quite complex, and is deeply embedded in Turkey’s production profile. Its ultimate resolution requires a long-overdue industrial upgrading drive to enhance the country’s global competitiveness in high-tech, high value-added sectors. And ironically, an integral component of such a strategy would be to prop up the ranks of the liberally-minded, dynamic, well-educated workforce, who predominantly embraces the values and lifestyles AKP leaders snub at every turn.
Finally, there is the question of foreign policy. One feather in the AKP’s cap is the admirable diversification of Turkey’s export markets. Turkey may remain import-dependent in aggregate terms, but thanks in part to the government’s proactive trade policy, Turkish firms have established strategic footholds outside of Europe, most notably in the Middle East and Asia. Yet in the background of the government’s foreign activism is also a grand strategy to reinvent Turkey as a regional leader in not just economic but also political terms. Following in the footsteps of most other emerging powers, Turkey has pursued a more assertive, independent regional policy than before, at times by emphasising its Ottoman legacy, which happens to fit well with the AKP’s conservative revivalism at home. However, some also think that Turkey has grown overconfident in recent years, that it takes unnecessary risks in relations with its conventional strategic partners in the West (the US, the EU and Israel) while overplaying its hand in regional conflicts, as in Palestine and especially Syria. This could be excused when Turkey was popularly perceived as a role model for its peers in the Middle East—a thriving market democracy ruled by moderate Islamists. But as concerns mount over the stability of the Turkish economy and democracy, and with the country’s EU bid in shambles, the Turkish model is fast losing its credibility. In such a context, sticking with an overly ambitious foreign policy is likely to appear less as the sympathetic eagerness of an upcoming democratic power and more as hollow grandstanding by a would-be regional hegemon with authoritarian proclivities.
AKP leaders and supporters have nothing to gain from interpreting the Gezi uprising as a finely orchestrated plot against Erdoğan’s rule. Sadly this paranoid delusion carries considerable weight in recent statements coming from Ankara. A motley crew of internal and external foes are randomly implicated, from coup-minded ultra-secularists to the mysterious “interest rate lobby”, some fringe domestic socialist groups, and yet-to-be-identified (but obviously foreign) forces that have the CNN, the BBC and the European Parliament all wrapped around their finger. This, needless to say, is a slippery slope that could only end in a pointless witch-hunt at home and further embarrassment abroad.
Instead, now that the Gezi occupation is over, reasonable figures in the AKP must strive to place the crisis in its proper context—an expression of intense frustration by vast numbers of discontented citizens against a long-serving hegemonic party, whose policies no longer fit the realities on the ground. Something has gone wrong; the magic has been lost. Seen this way, the crisis is indeed an opportunity for careful self-reflection for the AKP, and a chance for it to remember the sources of its past success: pragmatism, inclusiveness, and compromise.
Dr Ali Güven is Lecturer in International Relations & International Political Economy in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College and Co-Director of the MSc in Global Governance and Emerging Powers.