Published — Wednesday 5 June 2013
Last update 5 June 2013 1:29 am
IS Turkey on the road to the Arab Spring or is it that the riots which have spread quickly over tens of cities will force some kind of leadership change as happened in Britain, when the lieutenants of the Conservative Party forced the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher to step down after a landmark decade of rule?
Gezi Park, a small rectangle of grass and trees just north of Taksim Square, in the center of European Istanbul, has suddenly become the focus of world attention. A mere municipal affair has turned into a national political crisis. The idea was to level Gezi Park to reconstruct artillery barracks that were built more than two centuries under Sultan Selim the Third.
Environmentalists took to the park to prevent the uprooting of trees. They were quickly joined by left wingers, secularists and even some more moderate Islamists, who think that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an autocrat and that they have had enough of his 10-year reign. The tough crackdown on demonstrators simply fueled the demonstrations that continued through the weekend and up to last Monday, the beginning of the working week.
The three-day demonstrations led to the arrest of more than 1700 people in 67 cities including metros like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and echoed far beyond its borders in big western metropolises like London, Barcelona, Amsterdam and even across the Atlantic in Boston. The slogan of ‘Occupy Gezi’ quickly turned to calls for Erdogan to resign.
But Erdogan was defiant as he appeared on TV to say that, “Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild. If this is about staging a protest, about a social movement, I would … gather 200,000 where they gather 20, and where they gather 100,000, I would gather 1 million party supporters. Let's not go down that road.”
It is strange that a leader, who managed to improve his country’s international standing and economic performance during the past decade and had even registered a healthy 8 percent growth rate during the 2010/11 period, slashing public debt by more than 10 percent of the GDP to a healthy less than 3 percent is using such rhetoric.
During the (AKP) or Islamic Justice and Development Party’s rule led by Erdogan, the per capita doubled to more than $10, 000. To signal its new economic buoyancy, Turkey managed last month to pay the last tranche of $412 million to the International Monetary Fund. As one analyst put it, “Turkey is a perfect example of the maturing emerging-market asset class.” And that is why it was chosen to be among the G-20 group set up after the 2008 world financial crisis to look into ways of improving world economy.
Though these demonstrations came at a very critical time for Turkey given the regional uncertainty, and a slow-down in its economic performance for the first time in a decade, observers don’t see Gezi turning into another Tahrir Square which ended in forcing the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Many think the demonstrations are warnings of what might come and that the government’s rule is not guaranteed because it has a majority in the Parliament.
And here lies the dilemma. How come a government that came to power through free, credible voting, enjoys a constitutional mandate and was doing well economically suddenly find itself besieged by questions about its legitimacy and even survival?
The answer could be found in the social media revolution that allowed Twitter to be a driving force. To Erdogan, “social media is the worst menace to society.”
That could be true as there is no way to check the accuracy of the information disseminated through that medium, but on the other hand it shows that the conventional system whereby a party represents the people, who have to wait till next elections to change their government is getting increasingly outdated.
This is one of the great cracks in today’s political systems, where existing institutions that administer society are becoming obsolete and less representative of the younger generations who are adapting more to social media and expanding the telecommunication revolution which has yet to write down its rules on the socio- economic and political book of today’s world.