Crash Course: Turkey
Modern-day Turkey used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, but the country as we know it was founded in 1923 by nationalist Mustafa Kemal, later honored with the title Ataturk, or “Father of Turks.”
Kemal became president and established a one-party system, and was a major factor in pushing through a range of secular reforms, including pushing for greater rights for women and reforming the public education system. He established the norm that secular law would take precedence, and Sharia law would only factor into certain limited religious cases.
The one-party rule under Ataturk has caused some criticism, but many analysts seem to think that, given that he was struggling to establish a modern, secular country in between the two World Wars excuses his brand of “enlightened authoritarianism.”
Democratization after the death of Ataturk was a faltering, as the military maintained a major role in politics. They saw themselves as necessary to preserving the constitution against forces that might have wanted to turn Turkey into a theocracy.
In 2002, an Islamist party, the AKP, won elections in a landslide, leading to Tayyip Erdogan becoming the prime minister. He still holds the position today.
This has led to ongoing rhetorical conflict with the military and other secular forces in the country, although it has not boiled over into war.
The Current Protests
Protests started over plans to tear down Gezi Park, one of the few public parks remaining in the city of Istanbul, to build a shopping mall, but have since spiraled into something much bigger, with a range of grievances against the government being aired.
Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan of the AKP party, is credited with helping turn his country’s economy into one of the fastest-growing in the region, and he remains the most popular politician in the country. However, he has been accused of authoritarianism, and measures he’s introduced limiting the sale of alcohol and putting restrictions on public displays of affection have led critics to say he is imposing religious views of morality on a country that wants to remain secular.
For years, Turkey has been considered, at least by the U.S., as a prime example of democratic governance compared with some of its Middle Eastern and Eastern European neighbors.
But Turkey is also a place where journalists are jailed on shady charges. In fact, Turkey has the most jailed journalists in the world. And in a prime example of press censorship, as CNN International was covering the protests in Turkey live, CNN Turk, the local affiliate of the network, was running a cooking show. As a result, word has mostly spread through social media. You all may have seen the hashtag #OccupyGezi on Twitter.
Part of the problem is that Turkey has essentially once again become a one-party state. While opposition parties exist, it is hard for them to gain traction when Erdogan and his cronies can intimidate the media, and besides that ties to the military and nationalist rhetoric can sometimes discredit the opposition.
Then there is the fact that the government’s response has been incoherent and repressive. Police have tear-gassed and brutalized protesters. At least two have died.
While the deputy prime minister apologized for the excessive force used on the protesters, Erdogan himself has actually derided the protesters, calling them drunks and criminals. Unsurprisingly, that has not gone over well.
In fact, the protests are being fueled by Turkey’s middle class, and citizens with a wide range of ideological backgrounds, some of whom have previously voted for the AKP. The irony is that middle class grew to be such a sizable and well-educated part of the population due to the economic growth Erdogan helped usher in. And now they have a message for him: democracy is not just about winning elections. There is a necessity to engage the populace for major decision-making in between election cycles.
The current protests show no sign of relenting yet. Protesters have released a number of demands, including that the government cancel plans to destroy the park, ban police from using tear gas, release protesters who have been detained, lift restrictions on freedom of assembly, and remove officials responsible for the violent crackdown from office.
Meanwhile, two of Turkey’s biggest labor unions have announced plans to go on strike in solidarity with the protests. And while the military has made no public comment on the protests, it has apparently been distributing gas masks to protesters.