Protests in Taksim Square: 24 Years Later

Exactly 24 years after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Turkey’s prime minister has to decide how to respond to demands for real secular democracy. Will he agree to reforms – or “go Chinese”?

Taksim Square in Istanbul, where thousands of Turks gathered to protest against government plans to close down an urban park and replace it with a commercial development project, looks more and more like Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. When students demanded more political representation, the Chinese government reacted with force. The new China was birthed in blood, combining the concept of market freedom with the heavy hand of dictatorship. Now, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware that a booming society like Turkey also wants more representation. He has a choice to make: Quell the dissent and “go Chinese,” or allow Turkey to complete the path to democracy.

The interesting thing about revolutions is that you cannot predict the time when they will explode, but you can often forecast if they will or not – and such was the case of the rebellion in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In the last years, any chat with a (secularly minded) Turkish citizen about Erdogan invariably led to the same conclusion: “He is going too far with his Islamist reforms,” and “people will sooner or later rebel.” Nonetheless, Taksim Square looked like the usual busy center of Istanbul’s business life as recently as two weeks ago, when I was there. No protest signs, no sit-ins, no people parading.Taksim Square in Istanbul, where thousands of Turks gathered to protest against government plans to close down an urban park and replace it with a commercial development project, looks more and more like Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. When students demanded more political representation, the Chinese government reacted with force. The new China was birthed in blood, combining the concept of market freedom with the heavy hand of dictatorship. Now, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware that a booming society like Turkey also wants more representation. He has a choice to make: Quell the dissent and “go Chinese,” or allow Turkey to complete the path to democracy.

Yet the Taksim revolt was predictable nonetheless: Economic wealth leads to political claims – and Turkey has been growing at an average pace of 4.2 percent per year in the last two decades. Since Erdogan’s ascent to power in 2002, the average annual growth rate has been 5.4 percent. Indeed, traveling to Turkey in the late 2000s was like entering a live version of Daniel Yergin’s book about free market history: there were lines of people outside banks, markets were flourishing, and highways were full of trucks (although I shall say that the driving style had not changed that much with industrialization).

The majority rules – period.

However, Erdogan did not allow political demands to flourish. Democracy means that “the majority rules for everybody through the tool of majority.” Many Erdogan backers went for an easier version: “the majority rules” and can reshape the state at his will. This approach has more in common with fascism than with democracy. At least Turkey – which claims to be a European country – is also adopting a slightly European form of fascism: Power is gained through democratic means, not through dead corpses (the latter option is more at home in Latin America and Spain).

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Since “the majority ruled,” the Turkish government felt entitled to introduce ambitious plans that included arresting record numbers of journalists and students, banning alcohol advertising, and reintroducing Islamic rules to public spaces – with mandatory compliance. Erdogan and his government also spearheaded an international policy of hatred against Israel in order to gain support in the Arab world (but losing some 500,000 annual tourists from Israel). The final touch was the idea to redraft the constitution, with a turn to Russian-style presidentialism (Putin is a good role model for Erdogan). The newly constituted president would enjoy wide and unchecked control on the judicial system, with the ability to nominate justices without parliamentary scrutiny.

Turkey’s guardian of democracy

People in Istanbul – which is largely a secular city – rebelled when Erdogan did not halt plans to eradicate a park in Taksim Square in order to build a mosque and a shopping mall – the two cultural references of the government. Gezi Park is usually a sleepy and semi-deserted green spot, but any reason to rebel was good enough. Erdogan himself must have known that a rebellion would erupt sooner or later, and spent much effort curbing the influence of the only authority that has retained the ability to check Erdogan’s power: the military. Turkey’s army is regarded by some as the “guardian of Turkish democracy,” and generals usually intervene to “preserve” democracy once every decade: Coups were recorded in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. The previous decade didn’t see a coup attempt, but not for lack of grievances: Erdogan simply had the main contenders arrested. In September 2012, a record 322 officers served jail time on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. 100 more are on trial for the 1997 coup.

But arresting the military leadership will not prevent the revolt from spreading. This time is different: people are asking for an uprising. They don’t need the military to tell them what they need, they know that they want a secular state. This isn’t surprising: Turkey’s per-capitaGDP today – around 18,000 dollars – is three times higher than during the 1997 coup attempt. The luxury of democracy has finally arrived!

The common belief is that “modern” Turkey was born with the rise to power of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military man and reformer who led the transition from Ottoman collapse to a Western republic, with a bit too much Mussolinian flair in the beginning. The military always remained a strong force, since its role was to safeguard Turkish secularism, which was imposed from above – hence the passion for coups. In Taksim Square, the demand is for real grass-roots democracy, not for the Astroturf version imposed by the military.

Turkey is at a turning point: Taksim is a test to check if the “new” military truly depends on the new government. So, if Erdogan decides to “go Chinese” and the military intervenes, say good-bye to Western democracy. Let’s hope no more blood will be shed. As I write these lines, on June 4th, the Tiananmen massacre is exactly 24 years behind us.

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