Member and neighbour States

A Turkish spring?

Protests in Istanbul

Protests in Istanbul

Since last Friday, Turkey has been experiencing popular protests without precedent.

Hundreds of thousands inhabitants of Istanbul gathered to express their opposition to the destruction of Gezi Park, near Taksim Square. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime minister and AKP leader remained inflexible in spite of calls for calm made by Abdullah Gül, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Turkish President. 

Protesting against a real estate project at the beginning, the demonstration gradually shifted to an unsaid kind of revolution, giving a real occasion to hundreds of thousands people, throughout the country, to denounce Erdogan’s policy, pointing out an attack on fundamental liberties and an excessive corruption. So, the demonstrations became the expression of a deep unease within the Turkish society.

Despite a competitive economy and a good financial and economic growth, Turkey is still experiencing important political and societal movements, exacerbated with Erdogan’s arrival to power in 2002. Arousing fear, then hope, the AKP party led a free-market policy which was successful politically speaking, with the Muslim-democrat party getting the absolute majority in 2007 and 2011 elections, thanks to a very weak Left opposition. This position favoured a certain taste for and abuse of power by the AKP and its leader Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, who now targets the Turkish Presidency for 2014.

Gathering very different political and/or religious movements and parties (liberal Muslims, Kemalists, far-left, Kurdish people…), the current civic movement is looking for backing off Erdogan and his more and less conservative vision of Turkey. Since the AKP party has ruled the country, a kind of match has opposed moderate Islamists and secular people, the latter fearing to see individual and public liberties questioned, although the EU adhesion issue is used as a safeguard. By the way, it is quite surprising (and even worrying) that the European Union remains silent. Indeed, Brussels seems to be very discreet, with high-ranking officials such as Herman Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso or Catherine Asthon – the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – having not expressed their concerns so far. This heavy silence is very typical of the EU strategy which may use the current adhesion negotiations to extent pressure on the Turkish government and Erdogan.

Because if Erdogan seems to be firm in confronting the protests, it is certain that the political and diplomatic cost will be important. Being candidate to EU membership, Turkey cannot let its image be tarnished by the current events, especially if things turn bad. Moreover, and in other domain, the current uprisings have a disastrous consequence for Istanbul, considered as the favourite for hosting the 2020 Summer Olympic Games (the International Olympic Committee has to make its decision official in September).

So, it is highly probable that Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make some concessions, in order to win more time. But the protestation will have a durable consequence, a kind of “before-after” effect. While the AKP party and its leader appeared as the new engines of Turkey’s success, thanks to its economic performances and diplomatic influence, the strong opposition it meets reminds it that some Turkish people are still attached to a more modern vision of society, based on the respect of individual liberties and secularism. In this in-progress turmoil, the EU may play a major role to solve the problem, provided it feels clearly concerned by the current political situation.

Gilles Johnson

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