Majority rule: Turkey’s Taksim Gezi Park protestors must join the electoral process or perish
Anyone who has watched the news from Turkey in the last month cannot help but admire the courage of the protesters who have braved tear gas, fire hoses, and rubber bullets to remain in occupation of Taksim Gezi Park in downtown Istanbul.
What began as an environmental protest against urban renewal and the destruction of Istanbul’s remaining open spaces has grown into a much more comprehensive criticism of the corrupt manner in which the contracts were given to relatives of senior politicians, the utter disregard of citizen input, and, ultimately, of the way the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan does business.
The clash over Taksim has come to symbolize a wider clash over Turkey’s future. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled the country since 2002, has a number of real achievements to its credit. Its tenure has seen rapid economic growth, a reformation of the judicial system, and the elimination of the military influence in politics. But it has also begun a long-term reorientation of Turkey towards the Middle East.
While paying lip-service to ambitions to join the European Union, Erdogan and his government have begun to pursue a different dream; rather than entering Europe as a second class citizen, a Bulgaria 2.0, they see a future where Turkey leads the Middle East. With ancient Turkish/Arab differences standing in the path of a secular nationalist appeal, the unifying factor Turkey has embraced to establish its leadership has been Sunni Islam. It is this ambition to dominate a coalition of Islamic Democracies stretching from Egypt to Syria and Lebanon, as much as the resentments of its rural Anatolian supporters, that has driven Turkey’s current domestic policies. Thus, the previously secular Turkish state has seen new-found restrictions on alcohol, the legalization of headscarves, and an effort to turn public gathering places and red light districts in major cities into family friendly shopping malls.
All of this has served to alienate those who feel more at home in Europe, and value Turkey’s secular roots. The high-handed manner in which policy has been implemented has also raised concerns about the long-term commitment of the AKP to pluralism. Government restrictions on the media have ensured that there has been little coverage of the protests within Turkey, and much of the supposed popularity of the government is based on deliberate efforts to play on resentment against a supposed Kemalist ‘elite’. With the government denouncing protesters and opposition politicians as traitors, harassing them, and threatening them with arrest, the protesters are fighting for freedom of speech, freedom of association, the freedom of the media and Turkey’s wider role in the world.
Minority Rights v. Majority Rule
What the protesters are not fighting to defend however is democracy. For all the charges that can laid against Erdogan and his government, his party was reelected for a third term in 2011, winning a higher percentage of the vote than any other party has managed in half a century. The AKP mayor of Istanbul was elected by a narrower but still clear margin of 44-38 in 2009, and is in fact up for reelection this fall. The policies that the protesters have sought to highlight were implemented, as Erdogan has rightly noted, by a democratically elected government. To the extent that AKP actions, such as the harassment and intimidation of the media and the brutality of the police threaten to undermine the democratic system, they have a legitimate case, one that should be supported by America, the European Union, and the wider world. Yet at the end of the day, the future of the Park belongs to the people of Turkey, not just to the subsection who have taken to the streets to express their views, and the same is true of the wider questions regarding the future of Turkey that have been highlighted by the protesters. To get their way they must not just express their views, but convince a majority of the voters to agree with them.
There is an excellent opportunity to do so, at least on the issue of Gezi Park, within the next few months. On October 27th local elections will be held for municipal governments, including in Istanbul. In 2009, the AKP candidate won by a margin of six percentage points, 44-38, less than the AKP’s national margin of 51-27. With proper organization, such a margin, largely the product of opposition disunity, should be easy to overturn if the Taksim protesters truly represent majority sentiment within Istanbul.
Erdogan, for all his bluster, has floated the idea of delaying a final decision on the fate of the park until after the elections, meaning that an opposition victory in October could potentially save the park. That would be the least of its impacts. While having no bearing on Erdogan’s position in Parliament, an AKP defeat in Istanbul would act as a referendum on his policies, his handling of the protests, and the direction of the country. It would also act as a potential mobilizing point for Turkey’s first direct Presidential elections, currently scheduled to be held in 2014, where Erdogan is widely expected to be a candidate.
Despite the proffered opportunities, the opposition has been reluctant to either affiliate with the existing opposition parties or to embrace electoral politics on its own behalf. The former is understandable; the existing opposition parties are compromised by their failures of management and corruption, and have little to offer even many of the middle-class Turks who have joined the protests. The latter is a larger problem. Many protesters have rejected the idea of electoral politics, suggesting that to embrace it is to legitimize majorities running roughshod over minorities. Here they err in their understanding of the entire concept of democracy, though their error is one they share with far too many on the European and American left, namely that minorities deserve some sort of a veto on policies they believe are wrong. Democracy does almost certainly impose obligations on the majority to protect the rights of minorities to express their views, and to present them to the population for adoption. Furthermore, they place an onus on majorities to not unfairly discriminate against minorities.
That said, minorities have obligations as well. While they have a right to speak, they do not have a right to be listened to, or to have the majority agree with them. The principle of democracy assumes that after a full debate, the policy preferences of the majority will be implemented, and that the minority will accept them, relegating their opposition to a peaceful effort to prove their case in the next elections. The AKP having won three national elections has won the right to determine at least the general direction of national policy; having won control of the Istanbul municipality they have won the right to redevelop the city for good or ill. It would be absurd to give protesters in New York City the right to block redevelopment of say, Central Park, if the Mayor, City Council, Governor, and President had all come out in favor, and while their direct action might well lead to reconsideration on the part of those leaders, no one would begrudge the right of the New York Police to use force to evict them if they persisted beyond the point of democratic debate.
The same is true of the Taksim protesters. They have achieved an enormous amount. They have highlighted the corruption, autocratic instincts, and divisive ambitions of Prime Minister Erdogan. The coverage of their actions has made a mockery of the so-called “independence” of the Turkish media, and shown the extinct to which Erdogan’s efforts to break the power of the military “deep state” really involved the transfer of its influence to his own movement and its supporters. Having framed the debate and presented their message, it is now time for the protesters to present an alternative that does not just involve “No Erdogan.” As bad as Erdogan has been, the chaos that preceded him and the real economic and international achievements of his tenure mean many, perhaps most Turks will chose an imperfect Erdogan over an uncertain alternative. Only by presenting an attractive vision for Turkey’s future can they go toe to toe with the Prime Minister and potentially win power.
The road will be difficult. Erdogan retains much popular support in Anatolia, and the last few weeks have demonstrated the willingness of the AKP to use its control of the machinery of government to political advantage – intimidating the media, harassing opposition campaigners. But if the electoral route may be anything but fair, it presents the opportunity for victory. The route of civil disobedience on the other hand is dead end. The overthrow of the government is an end favored by only a small minority, and the message and nobility of the protesters will over time give way to frustration with the economic and social costs of continued chaos. In the end, continued protests aimed at overthrowing the elected government will give Erdogan the political cover to militarily suppress the opposition, and tar their message as that of idealistic dreamers with no alternative policy to offer. And more than anything else, today Turkey needs an alternative.