Where is Turkey Headed? (Part 2)

CES Faculty Associate, Fatma Müge Göçek, recently returned from Turkey. She shares her insights on Turkey and Taksim Gezi Park protests in the following piece, which is a third of the three-part series.

How could the Gezi syndrome (discussed in Where is Turkey Headed? Part 1) unfold? I think two significant actors will determine the trajectory: Erdoğan and the youth.

The most significant characteristic of new social movements that this youth formulated is that they are quick to mobilize, but hard to sustain in the long term. And this result is due to the presence of too many leaders and the absence of a strong ideology. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States could not sustain itself in its original form because it refused — unlike the Tea Party movement — to join the ranks or accept the financing of a political party. And the movement leaders eventually had conflicts with each other, fragmenting their course of action. Yet the movement is still important in American political discourse, and the various fragments play significant roles such as working for Barack Obama’s election victory or helping citizens after natural disasters. The main reason for this continued albeit partial success is their ability to successfully employ social media technology while staying connected to the transforming needs of the populace. Gezi movement can also continue to be a significant political actor in Turkey if it maintains its control over the social media while drawing upon the needs of the changing population make-up, one that is becoming increasingly young. I personally do not think that the radical militants and fringe elements within the movement will pose a problem because it will eventually become evident that they do not speak the same language with the protestors. Such transformation would ultimately integrate the educated youth into the political system, strengthening Turkey’s democratization process. Yet if brute police force would continue to be employed, it would increase the possibility of militant elements subverting the protest or peaceful elements becoming radicalized, leading in the end to sustained political violence.

As for Erdoğan, many columnists cannot fathom why he has assumed such an uncompromising stand. That he has usually had everything he wanted go the way he desired  during the last decade probably plays a significant role in shaping his attitude. And I am also sure that Erdoğan genuinely believes that what he engages in is the best possible solution to make Turkey a better place. Yet the problem is this: Erdoğan’s and Turkey’s vision are no longer in sync because of the decade-long change. And unfortunately the main reason behind this mismatch is not economic, but instead social. I say unfortunately because had the reason been economic, I am sure Erdoğan would have come up with a solution; after all, Erdoğan and AKP focus almost exclusively on and draw strength from the economy. Yet when one analyzes the performance of AKP and  Erdoğan from the vantage point of the social, successes quickly turn into failures. For example, in general, bringing AKP to the brink of closure in an attenpt to legalize headscarves, going to excess in punishing the engagement of the military and the deep state in political maneuvering, being unable or willing to reveal and punish those who planned journalist Hrant Dink’s 2007 assassination, and leading country to the edge of war by taking untried approaches in foreign relations…  And in particular, choosing personal loyalty over critical stand in organizing AKP’s women’s and youth branches, supporting the party hegemony of those members with former ties to the ‘deep state’, taking a stand against President Abdullah Gül and the Gülen movement, keeping sycophants in the inner circle while removing all those that are critical… In the end, no possible course of action other than an uncompomising one remains simply because there is no one left around Erdoğan that could tell him to do otherwise.

Where would such an uncompromising stand lead Turkey? Certainly continuous domestic strife, and the ensuing radicalization of the youth. Within AKP, the gradual erosion of Erdoğan’s political power, probably fragmenting the party as liberals break away — as they initially did in forming AKP — to found a new party. Outside AKP, stronger opposition parties may emerge  if and when the Kurdish oriented Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) expands its voter base beyond ethnic boundaries and/or the Republican People’s Party (CHP) could miraculously get rid of its ineffectual, outdated and old leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu or National Action Party (MHP) of its leader Devlet Bahçeli. Also possible is a military intervention since escalating political polarization might enable especially young officers within the army to once again justify intervening in the political system.

Where would a compromising stand take Turkey instead? The erosion of the neoliberal economy, increased democratization due to the political integration of the youth, continuation of Erdoğan’s power within AKP as a consequence of containing possible internal fragmentation, very slow build-up of a viable mainstream political opposition, and containment of the military in the barracks.

I had honestly not thought out these two options in such detail before I set out to write this piece. Now that I have, contrary to what has been argued, the cessation of Erdoğan’s uncompromising stand would be beneficial not only to the youth involved in the Gezi movement, but also to Erdoğan himself in sustaining the status quo and therefore his current political power.

Fatma Müge Göçek is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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