The violent crackdown against protesters, however, changed the protest into a multifarious national movement against the government, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and government policies. It focused also on accusations that Erdogan has systematically curtailed media freedom, and imprisoned journalists who had published pieces critical of the government or of him. The fear created among journalists was reflected in the media’s initially ignoring the nationwide protests.
The Turkish government initially responded with contradictory official statements from ministers, spokespersons and Erdogan himself. The prime minister took a tough line, while the president, Abdullah Gul – also an AKP member – and the deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, attempted to be conciliatory. Erdogan’s rhetoric increasingly alluded to domestic and international collusion in a supposed conspiracy against him, without naming the alleged conspirators. (There is a suspicion that he was referring to Iran.) Today, he finally conceded ground to the protesters. He agreed that no development would take place in Gezi Park until a court ruled on the matter, and, were the court to rule in the government’s favour, the development plan would be subjected to a city referendum. It is unclear whether this will end the protests.
There was also some dissatisfaction within the AKP with Erdogan’s handling of the protests, with speculation that if the matter was not resolved soon, there would be an internal revolt against him and AKP members would coalesce around Gul – seen as more popular and with the support to be able to challenge Erdogan for party leadership. If the protests end now, Erdogan will likely have undermined any such attempts. However, this episode could impact on the AKP’s support in the 2014 election. In the last general election in 2011, the AKP won just over fifty per cent support with a constituent base largely from rural eastern Turkey. Since then, government support for Syrian opposition groups attracted much criticism among certain sections of the Turkish population; however, in the past few months, that was substantially mitigated by the ceasefire deal made with the leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. It remains to be seen whether the handling of the protests will erode some of that goodwill.
The protests provided an opportunity for a number of disparate forces to come together – though not unite – around a common antigovernment agenda. Grievances ranged from Turkey’s neoliberal capitalist policies to what are regarded as Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies, ranging from personal interventions in the media to the ejection of critics from within the AKP. Especially among Turkish youth who have no memory of the autocracy of Kemalist and military rule in Turkey, Erdogan’s recent policies that seem to undermine liberal democratic freedoms and rights have not been acceptable. Many of those youth took to the streets of Turkish cities in the past few weeks.
Contrary to media soundbites, the protests did not represent a ‘Turkish spring’. Turkey is not a dictatorship like Tunisia or Egypt were, or Syria and Bahrain are. Nor is it, despite some accusations of ‘Islamisation’, a theocratic society. Some have used a recent law on alcohol sales and consumption as proof of such creeping theocratisation. In reality, though, the law is more liberal than Finland’s or that being debated in South Africa. Nevertheless, the protests were articulations of a democratic society unimpressed by a perceived intolerant leader who claims to represent the views of all citizens, and a demagogue who wants things done his way and is impatient with debate. There were also expressions of anger at the implementation of an economic system that is failing in other parts of Europe and leaving millions impoverished. With today’s deal, Erdogan has blinked. That could save his political career. The alternative is an endangering of that career – especially as he prepares to change the Turkish political system into a presidential one, and prepares himself to contest presidential elections, thus keeping him at the helm for another two terms in a country with a two-term limit for the head of government.