Turkey:  Calm Returns – but Calm Before What?

Turkey Gezi Park

Tomorrow’s headlines could be different, but Istanbul seems to calming after the protests and violence that have wracked the city since late May.  Looking back, what took place is significant and in many respects unprecedented. 

Key to watch now are how Turkish authorities deal with the diverse kinds of demonstrations and protests that are continuing, how fissures within the country’s ruling circles play out, whether new leaders can emerge who are able to coalesce what the diverse protest movement represents in politically effective ways, what wild cards the economy introduces, and the fate of the country’s PKK/Kurdish question.  Nuanced and pragmatic leadership will be required if the Justice and Development (AK) Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is to manage these and other challenges effectively.  Such leadership has perhaps not been the prime minister’s strong suit in recent weeks, but one should not underestimate him. 

Gezi Park’s history now needs no retelling, but three aspects of it stand out as one looks back on three weeks of both violent and non-violent protest. 

First, the demonstrations in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and dozens of other cities across Turkey are the largest, most diverse, and longest lived in the history of the Turkish Republic.  The country certainly saw plenty of protest in the late 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s, but none went on so long, involved such large numbers of people, or had such a strong non-violent core.  None combined the current protests’ peculiar mix of mainstream secularists, liberals (including previous AK Party supporters), Alevis, environmentalists, and various elements of the Turkish political left.  None was organized by social media. 

Second, Gezi Park provoked Turkey’s biggest political crisis since 2001, when the president of Turkey, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, threw a copy of the constitution at Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, provoking a financial crisis that cast Turkey into economic purgatory and created the circumstances for the AK Party to win election to parliament the following year.  Gezi Park also represents, of course, the biggest crisis of Erdoğan’s tenure as Turkey’s leader.  It has arguably seemed more threatening to him than interventions in 2007 when the Turkish General Staff tried to block then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül from the presidency or in 2008 when a prosecutor issued an indictment, eventually deflected by the Constitutional Court, that would have closed the AK Party and banned Erdoğan and many others from politics. 

Third, Erdoğan’s abrupt move on the weekend of June 15-16 to restore order reflected his realization that things had to be brought to an end, however unpleasantly.  For him, the alternative to quick action was continued government paralysis and drift.  Even if neither Tahrir Square nor France 1968 is an obvious scenario for Turkey today, Erdoğan determined to make sure they do not become one.  If matters could be made peaceful enough for three weeks, then the peace of Ramadan, which begins on July 7, and summer holidays at the beach for many Istanbul protesters could give the government time to regroup or at least change the narrative that seems so divisive today. 

Though some violent incidents have continued during the past week in Ankara, the western Anatolian city of Eskisehir, and elsewhere, calm seems to have been largely restored in Istanbul in the wake of Gezi Park’s final closure, according to people on the scene.  Publicized arrests of alleged malefactors and officials’ threats to prosecute those using social media to protest and egg others on had the predictable effect of scaring many away from further direct involvement.  Press coverage of events, especially outside of Istanbul, has become more cautious.  There have been reports of small-scale meetings in other parks around Istanbul – a less direct and less provocative way for interested citizens to show solidarity with one another.  Citizens scared to turn out in person have anonymously banged pots and pans from their apartments.  The standing man phenomenon that began June 16 is also interesting. 

Several spaces bear watching going forward. 

First, watch the weekends.  How will the authorities react if what have been hundreds of standing men and women mushroom into thousands or more?  What will they do if similar manifestations or meetings in parks replicate themselves all over Istanbul or elsewhere?  Having been whipped to frenzy by Erdoğan’s fire-and-brimstone speech on June 16, will AK Party hotheads take matters into their own hands against the standing men and women, people in parks, or pot bangers?  What will more provocative elements on the fringe of the Gezi protesters do, how will the authorities react, and how will mainstream Turks respond? 

Second, watch the AK Party and the Islamist side of Turkey’s political spectrum generally.  The government has clearly been divided on how to deal with Gezi Park.  President Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç early on were far more conciliatory than Erdoğan.  Some regard this as good cop/bad cop routine, but their policy preferences and political instincts are different.  No less significant were continued misgivings stated by the influential Turkish religious leader Fetullah Gülen and steady criticism of the government’s action in key media outlets associated with his movement. 

The prime minister has worked to enforce loyalty among his circle and party.  Gül has quieted down.  Arınç was apparently brought into line, even speaking favorably about the possibility of a Turkish military role in quashing protest violence should that prove necessary.  A Turkish paper reported June 20 that he had tried to resign over the handling of Gezi Park and the resulting protests.  Though denied, the report was likely based on something.  A real challenge to Erdoğan’s leadership seems unlikely, but dissonant voices within the ruling circles may moderate his approach and/or make for confusing and sometimes contradictory statements – and perhaps policy, as well. 

Third, watch the opposition.  As a separate piece by Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Sabine Freizer suggests, municipal elections scheduled for March 2014 may be more favorable to Erdoğan’s opposition than the presidential or parliamentary voting scheduled for August 2014 and July 2015, respectively.  As everywhere, local elections have more to do with local issues, and the dominating presence of national leaders weighs less on the voting. 

Istanbul bears particular watching.  In 2009, the Istanbul mayoral candidate of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, who now heads the party nationally, ran a competitive election, securing 37 percent of the vote against the 44 percent that went to incumbent mayor Kadir Topbaş.  If a climate of turmoil persists, a stronger opposition candidate could be more competitive still.  An AK Party defeat in Istanbul would represent a huge shift of political momentum.  Recent events will encouraging new players to enter the political fray and might induce the opposition parties to modernize their messages and messengers. 

Fourth, watch the Kurdish issue.  Turkish authorities launched negotiations six months ago with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  They resulted in an agreement, the details of which have never been particularly clear, for the PKK cease its violence and withdraw its fighters to northern Iraq in exchange for an end of attacks on them and liberalizing reforms that would ensure Kurdish rights.  PKK withdrawals began several weeks ago, and there have been few reports of significant incidents of PKK-related terrorism since.  However, Turkish media on June 20 reported complaints by the PKK’s military chief in northern Iraq, Murat Karayilan, and Selahattin Demirtaş, the head of the political party generally associated with that organization, about the government’s lack of follow-through on its commitments.  If the peace process collapses, PKK violence will almost certainly return, something that would create a whole additional set of nightmares for the authorities in Ankara. 

Fifth, watch the economy.  Gezi Park has put the Istanbul Stock Exchange into a tizzy.  The Turkish lira has tumbled.  Some of this is associated with external issues, but much of it is not.  Inflation will surely rise, and foreign enthusiasm for investing in Turkey will surely decline, at least in the short term.  Erdoğan’s and the AK Party’s popularity are based in substantial measure on the success of the economy, and its failures will have a serious political impact. 

Finally, watch Erdoğan.  Arguably one of the most successful politicians of the first thirteen years of the 21st century, Erdoğan has both a pugnacious, combative, and emotional side and a creative and pragmatic one as well.  No better illustration of this exists than the government’s about face on the PKK problem – from nothing but demonization to a peace and settlement strategy.  Over the three weeks of Gezi Park, the tough-guy Erdoğan has been predominant.  But he is also an astute reader of opinion polls, and shifts in public opinion might change is approach and/or style.  

Erdoğan’s party commands the clear support of about 35 percent of the Turkish electorate – a fact confirmed in recent polling, but also by opinion surveys going back to its victory with about that share of the vote in 2002.  It built upon that to win 46 percent in national elections in 2007 and 50 percent in 2011.  The increments owe to public appreciation of the stability and prosperity that Erdoğan’s government brought and a sense that the country was moving in the right direction.  With black clouds on the economic horizon, the image of stability damaged, and fully half the population questioning the overall direction of the country, those non-core votes must surely be at risk.  Will Erdoğan look for ways to placate those voters who may now have doubts?  Will he be forced to do so as part of the Kurdish package or to win a new constitution on which he has staked a considerable amount of his own credibility? 

The coming weeks will likely see a combination of continued demonstrations, tough government tactics toward those it believes are engaged in or encouraging violent or other threatening actions, and both shrill and conciliatory approaches on the larger issues by Erdoğan and those around him.  How these combine and mix will determine the shape of Turkey this fall and in the run-up to elections in 2014 and 2015.  The balm of Ramadan and summer holidays will do so as well.

Ross Wilson is director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former ambassador to Turkey (2005-08) and to Azerbaijan (2000-03). 

Photo credit: Lam Yik Fei/Getty

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