Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in tighter spots: He was thrown in jail for alleged Islamism, saw his last political party closed down and survived a showdown with the once all-powerful Turkish military.
Yet the street protests that erupted first in Istanbul and then across the country at the end of last month present a challenge he has never faced before. So far, he has mishandled the situation, and on June 6 showed no sign of backing down. That’s a mistake, because he has the ability to turn the protests to his advantage and the country’s.
Erdogan is Turkey’s most effective leader since the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and much of his success has been based on determination, populist rhetoric and a focus on business. Born into one of Istanbul’s notoriously tough neighborhoods, he is both the unyielding bulldozer of Turkish politics and the fix-it charmer. Almost 50 percent of the population voted for his Justice and Development Party two years ago.
What is happening in Turkey today is mostly about the other 50 percent of the country’s 76 million people. An opinion poll by academics at Istanbul’s Bilgi University found that 70 percent of the protesters had no strong political affiliation. The protests have been full of humor, volunteer enthusiasm, modern women, celebrities and bands of idealistic children skipping school. For the first week, the crowds were leaderless, the only things uniting them being social-media networks and a common slogan: “Tayyip, resign!”
That demand should be taken with a grain of salt. Turks are well aware that municipal elections in March, a presidential poll in August 2014 and parliamentary elections in June 2015 will give ample opportunity for change. As popular pressure forces mainstream Turkish television stations to overcome their fear of retaliation from Erdogan, chat shows are digesting what happened. They are also getting to know the newly minted Taksim Solidarity Platform, a network of more than 35 professional bodies, civil-society organizations, environmentalist groups, secularists, community associations and trade unions.
Every turn confirms that this protest is mainly about Erdogan’s increasingly take-it-or-leave-it style, the excessive brutality of the police, and a slew of huge projects and initiatives that threaten to limit secular lifestyles and to concrete over not just Istanbul’s Gezi Park, but also whole forests and city districts.
Anger was already mounting in Istanbul over a Roma neighborhood cleared for gated compounds, a 19th-century district near Taksim forcibly nationalized for redevelopment and a much-loved old central cinema peremptorily destroyed to make way for yet another shopping mall. In recent weeks, Erdogan pushed forward with plans to build a third Istanbul airport where a forest now stands, a grand mosque that would be visible from the whole city, plus a new bridge over the Bosporus with associated highways that would plow through yet more woodland. A vast land-reclamation project in the Marmara Sea and a shipping canal parallel to the Bosporus are also planned.
Social media began to overheat in mid-May when the government, without warning, introduced a bill to regulate the sale of alcohol and rushed it through parliament. This wasn’t a ban, and the government said the new rules resembled those of “advanced countries.” But Erdogan then explicitly linked the bill to Islamic law and indirectly accused secular republican hero Ataturk of being a “drunkard.”
So when yet another project began to unexpectedly rip up trees in the last small patch of green in central Istanbul, the secular-minded, Western-oriented middle class boiled over. They have felt increasingly excluded and isolated for years, unrepresented either by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or by the ineffectual main opposition parties. Gezi Park was the last straw.
Luckily for the ruling party, it still has a strand of idealism that harks back to the reformist agenda that it pressed so successfully in the early 2000s. President Abdullah Gul has spoken out during the protests to support freedom of expression, noting that democracy isn’t just about winning elections. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made a refreshingly empathetic speech, in which he apologized for police excesses and held talks with the Taksim Solidarity Platform about their demands.
Engaging the mainstream protesters would now be the best course for Erdogan to adopt, as well, rather than go on dismissing tens of thousands of ordinary Turks as “a few looters” and “extremists.” Real consultation and inclusion would be an easy way to separate most of the peaceful demonstrators from the hard-left, anarchist and other factions that are on the front lines of nightly battles with police in several cities.
Erdogan should outflank these radicals by performing one of the U-turns for which he has become famous, and seize this opportunity to restart his government’s stalled reforms.
First, this would support the enormously important process that he has started to end the insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK. Delivering a long- planned, fully democratic new constitution that addresses the grievances of the protesters, Kurds and other minority communities would be a master stroke.
Second, with the government’s Middle East and Syria policies widely discredited, this would be a good time to revitalize Turkey’s stalled negotiations with the European Union. The goal should be the process rather than the destination — everybody knows that the negotiations will take a decade or more to conclude, and that Turks and Europeans will make the actual accession decision at the end. Yet the act of meeting accession targets can be hugely beneficial for Turkey.
Third, use the current opportunity for a settlement on divided Cyprus. This would be good for Greek and Turkish Cypriots, open up half of Turkey’s blocked EU negotiating chapters, and make possible an economically and diplomatically profitable Israel-Cyprus-Turkey natural-gas pipeline.
Finally, such a return to the EU reform agenda would also provide a tool for Erdogan to use in fixing Turkey’s judicial system, state tenders and the transparency of government. All of these are principal demands of the Taksim protesters.
If these reasons don’t convince Erdogan, then a move back to his roots may also win over some among the 50 percent of the electorate that didn’t vote for him in 2011. They might consider him their candidate if, as expected, he runs for the presidency next year.
(*Hugh Pope is the director of International Crisis Group’s Turkey-Cyprus Project and the author of “Turkey Unveiled,” “Sons of the Conquerors” and “Dining with al-Qaeda.”)