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What began as an effort by a handful of friends to save a park in Istanbul has now become a full-fledged occupation of Taksim Square with political undertones. As citizens protest against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision to build a mall reminiscent of Ottoman-era army barracks in Taksim Squre, police have used tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to disperse the demonstrators.
We asked Dani Rodrik, Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy, for his perspectives on the protest and what it all means.
Q: Can you describe the political symbolism behind the protest in Taksim Square?
Rodrik: Resentment and opposition against the government’s authoritarianism and heavy-handedness had long been building up, but the opposition to date was largely divided. Secularists, nationalists, Kurds, environmentalists, civil libertarians, leftists, and ordinary members of the middle each had their gripes against Erdogan, but their differences kept them apart.
The symbolism of a few trees and a shockingly violent police reaction served to unite these groups on a common ground. They could all say “we want our rights and freedoms to be respected,” without having to agree on any particulars. Combined with Erdogan’s dismissive reaction, this is what made the protest so potent.
Q: Does this protest serve as a legitimate challenge to Prime Minister Erdogan?
Rodrik: It is certainly a big humiliation of Erdogan and it severely weakens him politically. I think he has just seen his chances of ascending to the presidency go up in smoke.
On the other hand, there is no organized political party to represent the protesters, and the established opposition parties are weak and ineffective. The main beneficiaries will be others in the governing AK party, particularly those who are close to the Gulen movement, which has been working hard to cut Erdogan down to size for some time.
Q: Where do you believe this protest stands in relation to the Arab Spring?
Rodrik: The Arab Spring is not a particularly apt comparison. Erdogan, as he keeps repeating, came to power in a free election and if another election were to be held tomorrow, he would still get more votes than other party leaders. Erdogan is an autocrat that came to power democratically.
On the other hand, clearly social media played a big role in the spread of the protests, as did the middle class. These are two commonalities with the Arab Spring.
Q: Do believe a new political organization will emerge from this effort?
Rodrik: This is the big question. I am not sure whether the diverse groups that rose up in protest will be eventually able to put down there differences.
Mere opposition to Erdogan does not make for a lasting political organization. And no natural leaders have emerged so far from the protests. So I am sort of pessimistic that the protest will lead to a new kind of politics or greater democracy in Turkey.
Q: How do you imagine this protest will end?
Rodrik: Eventually, the protestors will go home. The big question is how Erdogan will respond to try to repair his reputation. His previous plan to revise the constitution and catapult himself to the presidency is severely damaged. The peace process with the Kurds may also be on the rocks, since this was closely linked to Erdogan’s presidency ambitions.
We will see lots of jostling for power within the AKP and between Erdogan and the Gulenists. None of these groups have particularly strong democratic credentials.
The near-term direction of Turkish politics is more uncertain than it has been in a long time. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how anything good will come out of this from the standpoint of democracy.