Sunday, June 02, 2013

What Began in Taksim

The protests which began in Istanbul have spread throughout Turkey:
The demonstrations started in Istanbul a few days ago. The initial objective was to protect the park in Taksim, Istanbul's central square, from being demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. But the police intervened with excessive force against a peaceful assembly, liberally using tear gas to disperse protesters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the project will go ahead regardless of the "few" people that oppose it. As a result, this local dispute was unexpectedly transformed into a city and then a nation-wide mass demonstration against his polarizing style.
The mass protests should be seen as a reaction against the ruling AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan's style of majoritarian governance. By cementing a pro-government majority and avoiding consensus on sensitive issues, Erdogan's political strategy has polarized Turkish society. This majoritarian approach to decision-making has worked well for him so far. He not only succeeded in setting the agenda for the country, but he also increased his popular support over three successive elections. But it now seems that this style of governance has reached the limit of Turkish society's tolerance. The recent adoption of a law on alcohol that significantly impedes the marketing, sales and consumption of alcoholic drinks had already stirred a debate in Turkey about the government's negligence to take into account the sensitivities of Turkey's non-conservatives. Moreover, Erdogan's defense of the law by referencing religious principles only served to provoke the law's secular opponents. Instead the decision to transform a public park in the central square of Istanbul into a shopping mall became the rallying theme for many Turks to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Erdogan's leadership. 
I can't comment on what was happening in the early days of the protests, though I suspect the dense symbolism of Taksim Square played a role alongside the proposed redevelopment.  However, what sent the protests nation-wide and definitely put generalized opposition to the AKP at their center was the police brutality a couple of days ago.  Sometimes the crackdown is worse than the initial reasons for the protests.

I don't know where this ends.  Erdogan could simply wait it out, or he could try to cut his losses and back down, possibly with an eye to Istanbul's 2020 Olympic bid and his own planned presidential campaign.  If he does back down, he should probably do it soon, before the protestors demands start to grow.



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