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Thursday, December 19, 2013
- “Peace at home, peace in the world” is the official motto of the Turkish Republic. Coined in 1931 by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it implies a causal relationship, but the events this week in Istanbul and dozens of other cities of Turkey suggest that causality can work in reverse order, too.
With protests continuing over the past week, two years of Arab Spring and intense socioeconomic unrest in southern Europe seem to be spilling into Turkey, which until now had stayed out of trouble.
Still, the economy is strong, although not as strong as it has generally been in the past decade. As a result, the similarities Turkey shares with northern and southern Mediterranean countries that are also going through a crisis have more to do with poor leadership.
Financial success, fuelled by foreign direct investment (FDI) in luxury real estate in Istanbul and along Turkey’s Aegean coast and by massive privatisation of state enterprises, has given the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) unparalleled popularity as well as an increasing feeling of invincibility.
Since AKP’s 2011 electoral victory, this sentiment has translated into diminishing transparency and accountability by key government figures. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP’s leader and the Turkish prime minister, and a handful of close collaborators have ostentatiously disregarded calls by trusted advisors to consider the average citizen’s concerns and be more inclusive of the 50 percent of Turkey’s population that has not voted for AKP.
Lack of government transparency, such as in southern Europe, and arrogance towards citizens and their fundamental freedoms, such as in the Middle East, have paved the way to an explosive manifestation of the sense that enough is enough, resulting in three deaths, over 1,000 injuries and 1,700 arrests.
Some observers claim that the crisis started with a kiss, referring to a ban in May by Ankara’s authorities of displays of affection by couples in public areas that triggered youth demonstrations in the capital. Others point to earlier signs of discontent.
In May 2012 and the following fall, Erdogan challenged women’s rights to abortion and caesarean section for giving birth, repeatedly proclaiming that women should have a minimum of three children. Women’s associations took to the streets.
More recently, the Turkish parliament, where the AKP holds 326 of 550 seats, passed legislation severely restricting the promotion and consumption of alcohol, and Erdogan has promised high taxes on alcoholic drinks.
Secularist Turks, some of whom have voted AKP in past elections because of the government’s economic performance, have begun complaining that Erdogan is interfering with people’s lifestyles in an unacceptable way.
At the same time, citizens are tired of an excessively liberal economy that has increased the income gap between the bourgeoisie and the working classes.
The decision to turn Gezi, the only green park in central Istanbul, into a shopping mall and luxury apartment complex was the trigger rather than the cause of the Gezi revolt. Cumhuriyet Avenue, adjacent to the park, has already been demolished to make way to a large complex of expensive shops, residences and shopping malls, while Taksim Square, a landmark of Istanbul, will be converted to a large mosque.
Independent research by a non-governmental organisation published in 2012 showed that Turkey, with a total population of 75 million, possesses 85,000 mosques, 17,000 of which were built in the past 10 years.
In comparison, the country has 67,000 schools, 1,220 hospitals, 6,300 health care centres and 1,435 public libraries. The annual budget of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is less than half of that of the Directorate General of Religious Affairs, which represents the Sunni Muslims of the country (80 percent of the population).
FDI that has flowed into Turkey since 2002, mostly from Qatari and Saudi investors and U.S. and Dutch pension funds, has concentrated on speculative high-end real estate projects. The number of shopping malls grew from 46 in 2000 to 300 in 2012. Istanbul alone currently has 2 million square metres of malls under construction, according to CBRE, an international consulting firm.
A series of privatisations announced this year – a railway system, the national airline, major energy state enterprises, the highways and bridges network – will provide funds for undertaking grandiose construction projects: a third bridge over the Bosporus, a third airport in Istanbul, an artificial second Bosporus that will facilitate even more premium real estate developments, and the largest mosque in the Middle East, to be built in Istanbul.
The demonstrations that began ten days ago were spontaneous and peaceful and appeared to reflect citizen frustration with aloof state governance, but the zero-tolerance attitude adopted by the police and incendiary statements by Erdogan and certain ministers have transformed them into an unexpected political crisis that has uncertain implications for Turkish democracy.
IPS has spoken with political personalities and well known journalists who have been reluctant to discuss the situation as it evolves.
The personal secretariat of Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim theologian and head of a worldwide movement promoting moderate Islam and inter-faith dialogue, told IPS that Gulen will issue a statement at the end of this week. Currently living in self-exile in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States, he is followed by millions of Muslims.
As rallies continued Wednesday and student mobilisation has been announced for Thursday, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, and the vice prime minister, Bulent Arinc, both known for political maturity and moderation, have tried to offer limited excuses for police excessive force.
The true litmus test for the evolution of Turkey’s political climate will take place upon Erdogan’s return from North Africa later this week. But statements similar to those he made before his departure, such as “I will press with the Gezi project—if you don’t want a mall I will build a mosque” or labelling the protesters “marauders”, are unlikely to restore social peace.
To old hands in Turkish politics, the current unrest is reminiscent of the hegemonic style of the Democrat Party leadership of the 1950s.
“In 1957, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and President Celal Bayar were quite confident because they had received 47 percent of the votes in the elections,” said Huseyn Ergun, a veteran politician and current chairman of the Social Democrat Party (SODEP), described.
“They had started to put sanctions on the opposition party and its deputies. They also had an investigation commission in parliament against the opposition and destroyed Istanbul landmarks. You know how all this ended.”
Indeed, their reign ended in 1960 with a military coup, history that Turks are not eager to see repeated in their lifetimes.