Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 July 2020

Erdogan’s ambitions race ahead as spirit of Gezi Park hits a brick wall

Turkey's Teflon prime minister has come out of mass demonstrations and a corruption scandal with barely a dent in his armour, writes Piotr Zalewski
Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

At times, the scenes from the anti-government demonstrations that took place in Istanbul on May 31, the anniversary of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, felt vaguely familiar.

“Jump, jump,” a group of protesters chanted, hopping up and down. “Whoever doesn’t jump is a Tayyip.”

“Go on, spray, go on, spray,” another group yelled, taunting the lines of riot police assembled in front of them. “Go on, spray tear gas.”

The police, ordered to prevent anyone from accessing Taksim Square, the focal point of last year’s unrest, obliged, ploughing groups of protesters down Istiklal Avenue, the nearby pedestrian drag. A few hundred young men and women beat a retreat, then returned. A riot vehicle chased after stray demonstrators, sending them scurrying into the side streets, whipping those within shooting range with bursts from a water cannon.

Tear gas wafted into stores, restaurants and cafes. A shopkeeper, his wares knocked to the ground, cursed the protesters. The protesters pleaded with him to curse the police.

A handful of people were injured, and dozens more were detained, including a CNN correspondent who was led away, shoved and kneed in the posterior by a policeman during a live broadcast. He was released shortly after. Three days later, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was to call him an “agent”.

For all the echoes of last year’s unrest, the anniversary protests, which began in the afternoon and fizzled out a few hours later, lay bare what critics of Mr Erdogan’s rule have grudgingly begun to accept: the Gezi spirit specifically, and Turkey’s opposition more broadly, has hit a brick wall.

The meagre turnout on May 31 was only part of the story. With 25,000 police officers manning Istanbul’s streets, accompanied by 50 riot vehicles, and with Mr Erdogan having pledged to do “whatever was necessary” to cut off access to Taksim, his opponents were never likely to turn out in force.

Tear gas has become a regular presence in Istanbul’s downtown over the past year. Rather than spend yet another weekend running from the police, ducking for cover in one restaurant or another, and coughing their lungs out, many people opted to stay home.

What really spoke to the feeling of powerlessness that has spread through the ranks of opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and to the difference between this year’s protests and last’s, was the mood among the protesters themselves.

“Last year, it was like a dream,” one of them, Aytunc, a 23-year-old law student, told me. “Today, people are tired. We still need to show we are here, [protesting] in the squares, but we don’t have any hope left.”

The estimated 2.5 million people who took to the streets over a three-week stretch in the summer of 2013, outraged by heavy-handed police tactics, Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts and his government’s knack for putting billions of dollars in the pockets of powerful construction magnates, trusted, at least initially, that their concerns would be heard.

A year later, beaten back by police, accused by Mr Erdogan of conspiring with Western powers to subvert the course of their country’s democracy, and made to understand that their concerns counted for nothing, they have ceased to expect any concessions or conciliatory gestures from the AKP government.

What the protesters did not know in 2013 but what they know now is that Mr Erdogan is pure Teflon. Mass demonstrations, a corruption scandal featuring senior government figures, not least the prime minister himself, a messy, violent power struggle within the AKP’s Islamist alliance, and, most recently, the largest industrial disaster in Turkey’s history – things that would have brought most governments to the brink have not left so much as a dent in Mr Erdogan’s armour.

In a March 30 local election that he had deliberately turned into a referendum on his 12 years in power, and in which he was expected to stumble, the prime minister scored a convincing victory, walking away with nearly 45 per cent of the vote.

Part of the reason is the economy, which, plagued as it might be by a high current account deficit, high levels of corporate and consumer debt, and a depreciating currency, continues to power ahead. According to figures released this week, Turkey’s GDP grew by 4.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2014. The unemployment rate continues to hover near 10 per cent, as it has since mid-2011.

A growing pro-AKP media empire, as well as a range of mainstream outlets afraid to step on the government’s toes, has also helped.

Yet a large part of the reason why Turkey’s protest movement has had the wind knocked out of its sails is the state of the political opposition, which has run out of ideas and which many Turks simply refuse to entrust with their country’s future.

The lack of a political alternative to Mr Erdogan and the AKP is not only a figure of speech, but a fact.

On August 10, Turks will head to the polls to elect a new president, the first time they will do so in a popular vote. With Mr Erdogan almost certain to run, and with less than two months to go before the election, the main opposition parties still have no clue how to stop him. Worse yet, they have found no one for the job.

The opposition’s search for a suitable candidate has recently taken a turn for the absurd. At the end of May, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the third-biggest party in parliament reportedly asked the sitting president, Abdullah Gul, the AKP’s co-founder, if he would consider running again, this time as the opposition’s joint candidate.

Mr Gul, who occasionally speaks out against Mr Erdogan, but who remains the prime minister’s ally nonetheless, must have laughed himself into stitches before rebuffing the offer. Mr Bahceli has since denied the reports. Mr Gul has not.

More recently, a few opposition politicians have suggested another candidate, Deniz Baykal, the septuagenarian ex-chair of the Republican People’s Party, best known for leading his party to four consecutive defeats at the polls and being forced to resign following a sex scandal. Mr Baykal is yet to offer any substantive comment. The merry-go-round continues.

The logic of waiting for Mr Erdogan to make up his mind before announcing a challenger – assuming logic is even a factor – is hard to fathom. As soon as he declares his candidacy, any AKP candidate, be it the prime minister or someone else, will have the full power of the ruling party’s electoral machine at his disposal. Mr Erdogan can assemble a nationwide campaign with the snap of his fingers. The opposition, which has infinitely smaller resources, and which rightfully complains of being snubbed by the mainstream media, cannot. Should it ever decide on a candidate, it will have no time to introduce him or her to the Turkish public.

Turkey, in other words, is heading towards a coronation, not an election. Those looking for an alternative to Mr Erdogan and the AKP, including last year’s Gezi protesters, are right to despair.

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer living in Istanbul

On Twitter: p_zalewski

Updated: June 14, 2014 04:00 AM