Turkey is going through very significant events that will have lasting effects on the country. From bringing hitherto fragmented groups opposed to the AK Party government together, to new uses of satire and humor; from the AK Party’s openly taking up the Turkish state tradition of brutality and violence against its own people, to effects on party politics: the current protests and AK Party-led state response to them will change Turkey in many ways, some of the longer-term of which are still difficult to see over the horizon. Short-term effects are there for all to see online and in the usual social media. So while it’s turning out to be true that “the revolution will not be televised,”[i] it will probably, however, be on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. (And no, I do not think ‘revolution’ is an especially useful way to describe what is going on in Turkey, except in some metaphorical sense of radical changes in the nature of protest and opposition in Turkey.)
There can be little doubt that the AK Party has presided over and managed a dramatic increase in the living standards of the country, a curbing of the role of the military in institutional politics, and an increase in Turkey’s stature and influence in its neighboring regions and beyond. Why, then, would such large crowds brave spectacular police violence and take to the streets? With protests and regime changes in the Arab world in recent months and years, it seems there is now an apparatus in place for rapidly following and interpreting social and political unrest, and this is probably overall a good thing. However, it does have the danger of encouraging a “rush to comment,” leading to some unfortunate situations where attempts are made at “informed commentary” by those who are evidently less than well informed, reading into events a confirmation of their previously-held views.
A recent such piece by a US-based commentator can be taken as an example, and I will make reference to this article because it contains statements similar to ones not uncommon in other venues (and which are also very similar to problematic ones made by some Turkish authorities themselves). The author makes what I think are apposite observations about the AK Party’s policies largely being behind Turkey’s rising power and prosperity, while this increasing power has gradually gone to Prime Minster Erdoğan’s head leading to authoritarian tendencies, and he has fallen into the position of a hypocrite, having chastised leaders of Arab countries for their undemocratic excesses. Likewise, I agree with his observations about how the attempts by the Turkish government to ascribe these events to a foreign conspiracy (against the government, against the rising economic and political power of Turkey, etc.) are typical of dictators of the region. However, when it comes to the current protests the author seems to be in over his head.
He writes: “[F]rom the beginning of the protests there have been contingents who fought with and taunted the police, to include launching stones, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at the authorities. In fact, the water cannons and tear gas were deployed in response to this initiation of violence by the protestors.”
These statements are “in fact” wrong. “The beginning” of the protest proper was a group of largely students going to the Gezi park as workers with heavy equipment began to uproot trees as part of the transformation of the park and surrounding square, none of whom did anything remotely violent. No rocks thrown, no violence, and it was this group that was beaten and blasted with pepper spray (the iconic image of which was the ‘girl in the red dress,’ as she came to be known). It was only in response to this blatant police brutality that masses poured into Taksim, not before, nor was any violence by the initial protests the initiator of the police violence. Let’s get the chronology right: police violence against peaceful protesters is what initiated the larger protests which spiraled to include stone-throwers; not the other way around. The Deputy PM Bülent Arınç admitted as much when he said on June 1st, “I think it’s beneficial to exert efforts to convince those who say ‘We don’t want a mall here,’ rather than using tear gas on them.” What percentage of the protesters were stone throwers, car and bus burners, and otherwise vandals or resorting to ‘violence’? My personal observations and from the (eventual) wide TV coverage leads me to estimate five percent of them, at most (again, I hasten to emphasize that this is an estimate). Which does raise the question of why most government officials, from the very beginning, have made scant reference to anything other than the ‘violence’ that ‘necessitated’ police ‘intervention’ (read: police beatings, tear gas use in three days equivalent to the ‘normal’ annual amount used, rubber bullets, water cannons with such power as to blast people head over heels, etc.).
Let us leave aside for a moment the issue of how a state should treat groups of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, no matter how small or large. The author also writes, “There is no reason to believe that the protests represent the popular will…”
This “popular will” issue is an important one, both because it is at the heart of debates about democracy and because it is a phrase Erdoğan has been fond of using, especially recently (calling the recent AK Party rallies “Respect for the National Will Rallies”).
The AKP got about twice as many votes (50 percent) as the next party, the CHP (25 percent) in the last national elections (for the National Assembly) in 2011. Does 50 percent of votes cast (not eligible voters’ votes, cast votes), in fact 43 percent of eligible voters, amount to “the popular will”? 57 percent of the eligible voting population did not vote for the AKP. We do not know if the AKP in 2011 represented the “will” of 50 percent of “the people”; we do know that 43 percent of the people who could vote did vote for them.
So, what to make of the idea that with those numbers, whatever Erdoğan does is “democratic” and “representative of the national will” and that those who are against that are “against democracy”? This would be a question of semantics were it not for the fact that with these votes the AK Party is in the position of being able to pass legislation single-handedly, without needing votes from any other party. It may be an arrangement arrived at through elections that were probably free and fair by most standards (“democracy”), but it is also a situation were 50 percent is ruling—and increasingly defiantly—in opposition to the other; a tyranny of one half over the other.
First of all is the fact that there is a minimum 10 percent barrier; any party that does not receive 10 percent of the vote nationwide does not get represented in the National Assembly. While many countries have minimums, this is the highest I am aware of. The nationwide qualification is important for several reasons. It is generally interpreted as having had several aims when it was inserted into the constitution of 1982 prepared under military tutelage after their coup in 1980, but mainly two: preventing hung parliaments due to many small parties making and remaking coalition governments and unable to pass legislation in the Assembly, thus “streamlining” the political landscape and rendering smaller parties even more marginal to the point of irrelevance (this has indeed been the case); and aiming to prevent regional (read: “Kurdish”) parties from entering the Assembly, for even if a party easily beats the 10 percent threshold in, say, the predominately Kurdish southeast, it will still be disqualified if it doesn’t get 10 percent across the country.
Why does this matter to the recent protests? For one thing, if the threshold were lower, many people would vote for smaller parties who currently do not, so their vote is not ‘wasted,’ and they would at least feel that they are somehow being represented by the ‘political system’ in Turkey.
Secondly, the system thus designed exaggerates electoral results, purposely of course, in the interest of stability (those parties getting more votes end up with inflated representation; those getting less votes end up with an exaggeratedly low amount of representation, and those under ten percent, none). As we saw, in the last national elections the AKP got some 50 (49.83) percent of votes cast. But because of the electoral system they were allocated 59 percent of the seats in the assembly, enough for them to pass legislation without other parties’ votes (only 50 percent of a quorum plus one are needed). The AK Party simply refuses to compromise on controversial legislation for the simply reason that they don’t have to. This failure of a more pluralistic approach to democratic politics points to problems in the nature of the electoral system in Turkey, which has been criticized for years, especially by the Left and Kurds. Interestingly, the AK Party has made much of their attempts at dismantling the mechanisms put in place by the post-1982 military tutelage, but it has shown no signs of changing this system. This has gone on now for eleven years, and has led to an accumulation of anger and frustration.
Imagine if in the US getting just under 50 percent of an imaginary combined congressional and senate votes, and fewer than that in the two previous elections, led to one party being able to have the necessary numbers in the House and Senate (Turkey’s legislative branch has only one chamber) to pass any legislation they like for over ten years; and since 2007 the president—whose signature is needed for legislation to go into effect—has been from the same party. Add to this the fact that as in many parliamentary systems, the ruling party packs its own people in all ministries, starting from the top down, and eventually—time permitting—every and any institution it can (police, courts, schools and universities, mass media censorship boards, etc.); plus the endemic corruption of public contracting in Turkey, whereby companies close to the ruling party just “coincidentally happen” to almost always get such contracts—accompanied by the usual kickbacks, of course—which is ever more important as the size of such contracts has ballooned into hundreds of millions and billions of USD in the context of Turkey’s recent economic growth. One can begin to imagine the constant, daily frustration and anger that has built up (we haven’t even discussed specific and controversial policies); and when this was peacefully protested, it was met with incredible brutality by a government that blamed the protesters for it.
I think there are interesting and legitimate questions as to the degree to which the situation would be different on these accounts were another party in power. To what extent are the dynamics witnessed in Turkey now the result of a single party ruling exclusively for too long, and to what extent do they have to do with that party’s particular policies and style? That is a longer discussion for elsewhere.
So, a large part of the answer to “how is it possible that a small protest by a few environmentalists and feminists grew so quickly into a broader one” has to do with these phenomena.
The commentator’s statement, “the media failed to cover the large counter-rallies in support of the prime minister,” is a curious one, and must be referring to international coverage; on the days they took place, there was scarcely a Turkish TV channel not giving coverage, though some more than others, and all major international media outlets online also gave coverage. But if these rallies were not covered, likely neither was the fact that the AK Party rented municipal busses (and boats in Istanbul), to ferry people from all parts of the cities to them. The rallies were certainly large, though just how large is, of course, disputed. One group of academics from Boğaziçi University tried to estimate the crowd at the Istanbul rally, and calculated it to be approximately 295,000 at most.[ii]
Finally, the commentator writes: “What these inconvenient facts [allegedly revealed by the article] do suggest is that the worldwide enthusiasm and blind support for these protests is problematic. Under all of the rhetorical and ideological flourishes, no action occurs in a vacuum, and all social movements are always and only about one thing: restructuring power dynamics. Accordingly, it is important to ask a number of critical questions about any social movement: which internal and external actors are involved? How are they involved? What are the relations between these actors? What, specifically, is each party after? Why?”
There is obviously no end to a description of “the” internal and external actors involved in a social movement; the relations among them; how there are involved; what, “specifically” each party is after; and why. I have never seen an analysis that does this, and cannot imagine what one would look like. What makes support “blind”? The vast majority of the support and solidarity from outside of Turkey I have seen is focused on the issue of police violence against peaceful protesters. That the Turkish government continues to focus on the miniscule fraction of the protesters who were involved in vandalism or “violent” behavior in light of blatant police violence, and has so far done little if anything to bring to account police for breaking laws and regulations themselves, is a continuing disgrace. It is especially ironic that the AK Party came to power explicitly and deliberately seeking to integrate Turkey further into global flows of people, ideas and capital, and now blames those same flows for conspiring against it.
The focus of the world’s attention has mostly been right where it should be: on spectacular police brutality against its own peacefully protesting citizens, and the failure of the AK Party government to reach out to seek compromise with those who are opposed to them, in the National Assembly and on the streets. Rather than seek to understand how such protests happened (without recourse to pathetic foreign conspiracy theories); rather than reign in obviously over-reacting security forces; rather then reach out in some way to segments of society who oppose them (credibly half the voters); rather than even simply using a language that tries to encourage a softening of the tone in the country, what is Erdoğan and AK Party government doing? The very Minister for EU Affairs declares that anyone trying to enter Taksim square during the police lock-down will be treated as a terrorist; Erdoğan declares they will “strengthen the power of the police to quell protests”; warns there will be legal repercussions for those who participated, who will all be “made to pay”; and blatantly declares his obstinacy by stating “This Tayyip won’t change.” That bodes ominously for Turkey, I’m afraid, because while he may have had fifty percent of the votes in 2011, it seems unlikely that he would receive that many now, and in any event that means that one out of two people probably do not support the AKP. A tyranny of the half is inherently unstable, a situation which invites the authorities to a more inclusive approach not only to these protests, but to government itself.
Brian Silverstein is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. bsilver@email.
For those parties interested in further exploring these issues, Musa al-Gharbi’s rejoinder to Dr. Silverstein is available here.
[i] The major TV stations at the beginning of the protests censored themselves, most famously CNN Türk, which infamously was showing documentaries about penguins rather than cover the growing protests, instantly making penguin figures and motifs a part of the visual culture of the protests.
[ii] The academics were a computer scientist, a physicist, and a political scientist. The explained their study thus: “The area where the rally was held in Kazlıçeşme, Istanbul is 17 hectares, that is 170,000 square meters. From the arial photos taken of the rally we can say that the crowd fills roughly 125,000 square meters. This includes areas for the stage and security areas, but these were included as filled by the crowd. We used a crowd size estimate used since the 1960s. In the literature, it is generally accepted that for a ‘normal’ density crowd, for every two square meters you count one person; for a ‘dense’ crowd you count two people for every square meter; for a ‘very dense’ crowd four people per square meter. Taking the overall area into account, in the event of a very intense crowd the maximum possible size would be 500,000 people. From the arial photos we see that about 60,000 square meters are extremely dense; 15,000 square meters are dense; and the remaining are of low density. Hence we can say that at most 295,000 people attended the AK Party rally.”