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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).