Protests in Turkey aren’t a sign of the failure of democracy there but a sign that Turkish politics is now resilient enough to experience public discontent that strengthens participatory democracy. But if Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains insensitive to public opinion, it will cost him his job.
It’s easy to characterize the disorders in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and elsewhere in Turkey as a “Turkish spring” – mass demands for democracy in yet another Middle East country. But these tumultuous events, rather than a sign of failure of democracy in Turkey, might demonstrate quite the opposite – an affirmation of the further maturing of Turkish politics, now resilient enough to experience periods of public discontent that actually strengthen participatory democracy.
Wishful thinking? Not quite. There are multiple reasons why Taksim Square is worlds apart from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, not least of which is that the demonstrations are not against some entrenched dictatorship, but against a prime minister who has won three successive free and fair elections. No other Turkish prime minister has ever accomplished that.
No, the problem can be more accurately described as a reaction against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s prime ministerial high-handedness that in part stems from political fatigue – even arrogance – after 10 long years of power, and other social grievances. Mr. Erdogan has simply stepped on a lot of toes by now and seems increasingly tone-deaf and imperious in the face of public discontent with many of his policies. If he remains insensitive to a large segment of public opinion, it will cost him his job, and maybe even bring down his party in the next elections.
Erdogan won office by gaining widespread public support, not just from religious-minded Turks, but also from liberal and intellectual circles that approve of his skillful victory over the long-time military domination of Turkish politics and greater liberalization. He has transformed the Turkish economy, making it the 17th-largest economy in the world. He has introduced major political, economic, and social reforms while zealously seeking EU membership.