01 June 2013

Is Taksim Square Turkey's Tahrir Square?

That was the question posed by many commentators in the last two days.

Woman in Red is the Iconic Image of These Events
Although I get the irony of a government hailed as the model that could enlighten the Arab Spring (I dissented) finding itself at the receiving end of popular anger, I doubt that there is any comparison.

I also do not think that these events would lead to dramatic changes in Turkey in the short run.

But I agree that the uprising points to a number of significant problems for the ruling party. And it is likely to be the harbinger of difficult times for the AKP.

There are several approaches to explain the underlying causes of public anger. The most benign is to point to what we could call the AKP fatigue. They have been around for ten years and this is a very long time for any government to be in power. Remember the Blair years in Britain or the Jean Chretien years in Canada. People are naturally sick of seeing the same faces making the same claims. They also blame them (rightly) for everything that goes wrong.

Alternatively, you could make a list of all the grievances expressed by the protesters and/or all the errors committed by the AKP. The list is long indeed: growing authoritarianism of Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey being the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, the creeping Islamization of the country, discontent with Syria policy and its terror implications, etc.

Without denying these factors, I believe that there are two fundamental reasons behind the protests: One is structural and the other accidental but taken together they suggest that there is no easy solution to this issue.

Paradoxes of the Politics of Polarization

From the outset, Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister relied on a deliberate policy of polarization. His was an "us and them" approach reminiscent of the post-9/11 Bush administration's crusade mentality. As a general rule, the big advantage of polarization is that it forces all the groups who share your worldview generally to leave aside small disagreements to support your government through thick and thin. These groups move to the "us" block and stop voicing minor criticisms.

Obviously, polarization has the same unifying effect on the opposition but if you can find a way to divide them up or make the "them" bloc less worthy (like the GOP successfully turning the term "liberal" into a pejorative label), you will be very successful electorally.

Especially if you can combine this approach with sustained economic growth.

And to their credit, they did.

The problem for the AKP is that significant economic growth has a way of undermining the implementation of this polarization policy. If you make the "us" group the main beneficiary of that growth (and to keep them in your bloc you would have to), initially more people would want to join your side. And this is what happened in Turkey. While quadrupling the GNP and vociferously belittling their opponents they kept increasing their popular support. Ultimately, they won the last general elections with 50 percent of the vote.

However, over time, these policies backfire almost inevitably. And there is a simple logic to that: With an increasingly larger pie, the groups in your bloc would start competing with one another to get a better slice of it. The unity and cohesion of your bloc would become fairly questionable. And unless your government could keep the pie growing exponentially (which is impossible), sooner or later some groups within the bloc would stop supporting the ruling fraction. Or worse, they turn against it.

Similarly, the groups in the "them" bloc would realize over time that they would need to put their differences aside if they ever wanted to have a share of the national pie. The government's efforts to keep them divided would gradually become ineffective in the absence of suitable carrots to offer to them. Since the basic definition of politics is "who gets what, when and how" economic exclusion is a very powerful motivator for the opposition. (Remember Machiavelli's cynical advice? He told the Prince that he could kill people but he should never touch their property "because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.")

And there is no easy solution: Bringing in some of the excluded groups would be fiercely resisted by the competing members of the ruling bloc who do not want to share the pie.

That leaves a no-carrot-and-stick-only approach. Hence the growing authoritarianism of Erdogan, the relentless pressure on large media companies to manipulate the news (for instance all the large TV channels have refused to report of the events in Taksim), the imprisonment of dissenting journalists, the dubious prosecution of officers and intellectuals through the Ergenekon trial.

Consequently, the AKP government is in a bind. In a reversal of the effects of their polarization policy, their internal coalition is crumbling and the opposition is growing more unified. A good if symbolic example from last night was the unity of soccer fans. Turkish soccer fans are rabidly fanatical and they hate each other with a passion. But last night, the supporters of the three major teams entered the Taksim Square together chanting slogans about their united determination to face the government. It is just a symbolic gesture but it is highly significant as this has never happened in living memory over any other issues.

Perhaps more tellingly, radical left wing, right wing and even pro-Kurdish groups (like the MPs from the BDP joined the protests. Given the animosity between the largely nationalistic opposition and the pro-Kurdish parties, this latter was an unexpected development.

Incidentally, do you know what Taksim means? Taksim Square refers to the central point in Istanbul from which municipal water used to be redistributed to the city. But the word "taksim" means to divide up and to distribute.

You will note the irony.

The second (and accidental) reason is Erdogan's delusions of grandeur coupled with a sense of time running out on him.

Hubris and Cancer 

Erdogan has always been a belligerent politician. He has an in-your-face demeanor and he does not mince his words. In the early years this made him the perfect leader to implement the policy of polarization. Every time he insulted the colorless and ineffective head of the opposition his supporters felt proud and elated.

Like every charismatic politician, he was more brawn than brain.

When suddenly, in 2009, he was called upon to help implement the biggest transformation of the Middle East, he changed radically.

He began to project an image of a statesman. His speeches grew more ponderous and pedantic.

Like American Presidents bestowing upon themselves the gratuitous title of the "Leader of the Free World" he seemed to view himself as the Leader of the Middle East. His new Minister of Foreign Affairs formulated a policy of Neo-Ottomanism (making him the Sultan).

His bellicose style helped him gain admirers in the region, especially when he attacked Israel. But you could sense that he was a different man.  In the process, he start distancing himself from his long time partner Abdullah Gul (who is currently the President. They used to have a Medvedev-Putin relationship with Gul acting as a stand-in for him on several occasion. But Gul was also the brain of the operation.

Yet, after 2009, Erdogan stopped taking Gul's advice and Gul began expressing mild but very public criticisms of Erdogan's actions and decisions (He spoke out against police brutality about these recent events).

In late 2011, Erdogan was diagnosed with colon cancer (actually this was not reported in Turkey, they only acknowledged that he had to undergo an operation but I know from multiple reliable sources that his cancer was serious and at the time of the operation it had metastasized to his lymph nodes). The chemo was successful to stop the progression of the disease but he is not cured.

So, he is acutely aware that he does not have much time.

Since his chemo treatment there has been a radical change of style. He now works incredibly long hours. He never takes time off. He looks unhealthy in his TV appearances. And he became extremely short tempered and angry. Apparently, he gets upset over any hesitation, any slow down and any resistance to his ideas.

In that sense, Erdogan and AKP are in a tough spot. The economic pie is not growing as rapidly as the competition over it and because of it, unlike the early days, they have to use more stick than carrot. On top of this, Erdogan thinks that he was given a mission form God (actually it is the US but that is the same thing in this context) and he has a small window to achieve it.

So, I expect more authoritarian and more abrupt reactions from him. Consequently, I would be very surprised if he backed down over Taksim.

But in the long run, these events will be remembered as a turning point for his government.

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