Protests Show Turks Can't Tolerate Erdogan Anymore

The Turkish leader's opponents lacked a unifying way to denounce his "Ottomania" and heavy-handed leadership. Until now.

A man wears a makeshift gas mask during protests in Turkey on May 31, 2013 (AP)

In the early afternoon Friday, Turkish police surrounded a peaceful group of protesters, and, shortly after the end of Friday prayers, began to volley a slew of tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd. The protesters had been camped in Gezi Park -- a small leafy park wedged near the bustling Taksim square -- for days to prevent the ripping out of trees to make way for the building of a shopping mall.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has chastised the protests, claiming that the hundreds of people were unfamiliar with Ottoman history, and that the projects would continue unabated. In turn, the police have been using tear gas to forcibly evict the protesters camped in the park. As the use of force has escalated, the protests have morphed from an occupy style movement into a larger-scale rebuke of the AKP's heavy-handed rule. The protests have now spread to Kocaeli, Edirne, Afyon, Eskisehir, Bodrum, Antalya, Aydin, Trabzon, Mugla, Mersin, Ankara, Adana, and Konya.

Despite having its genesis in the Gezi Park movement, the dynamics of the protests now reflect many of the fundamental antagonisms in Turkey's imperfect democracy. Erdogan's divisive rhetoric and his penchant for authoritarian rule have steadily eroded the party's support from small constituencies that it could once count on. While the AKP's voter base is often simplistically assumed to be religious conservatives, the truth of the matter is that AKP supporters include a small number of liberals eager to do away with the undemocratic constitution, a business sector happy with the party's handling of the economy, nationalists who are pleased with what they perceive as Turkey's re-emergence as a global power, Turkish Islamists obsessed with the proliferation of Ottomania (a growing desire among the Turkish population to reconnect and reacquaint themselves with the country's imperial past), and some members of Turkey's Kurdish minority who are pleased with AKP's democratic reforms.

Of these interests, the only group to leave the party en mass during the AKP's rule has been the handful liberals that bounce from party to party in search of greater freedoms. Turkey's main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), ostensibly represents the secular segments of Turkish society but has failed to expand their political base beyond the country's western coast.

Thus, during the early years of Erdogan's rule, which were characterized by a sustained push to reform Turkish laws along European Union standards, the ruling party was able to co-opt some parts of the more liberal segments of the population. Lots of people that did not compromise part of the AKP's core constituency, for example, would lambast Erdogan publicly but would quietly vote for him because he was handling the economy well and they were pleased with the growing liberal freedoms.

This dynamic has ended. After winning the last election, Erdogan's purposeful buoying of a sagging economy with massive infrastructure projects has allowed for these disparate sections of the non-AKP elements of the Turkish electorate to channel their growing anger behind one symbolic political cause. This anger has only intensified as the violence from the police has escalated.

Moreover, it is impossible to separate the demonstrations on the streets from the anger at the process for passing recent legislation. Erdogan has recently paired his environmentally questionable policies with more stringent restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The law, as is typical in Turkey, was passed quickly, and with little insight from the main opposition. The party brought the socially divisive issue to the Parliament and within two weeks passed it with little regard for how it would be interpreted by voters. The process reinforced the growing sense amongst non-AKP Turks of their disenfranchisement and their lack of real power in the political system. The Gezi protests, therefore, are an extension of this dynamic.

Erdogan's handling of the crisis thus far suggests that he remains confident in his ability to weather the storm. Undoubtedly, the powerful prime minster is confident that his core supporters will associate the protesters with the secular movement and blame them for causing trouble. This attitude is reflective of the major problem with Turkeys' troubled democracy: Namely that the Prime Minister refuses to compromise, or at least take into account, the demands of those who do not vote for him. Turkey's political agenda therefore reflects, by and large, the AKP's more conservative constituency.

Before the protests, the non-AKP voting bloc had not had a unifying cause to channel their growing anger at Erdogan's political agenda. The protests have unleashed this anger. In turn, this suggests that the only way for the government to appease the protesters is to compromise. Everything about the AKP's history, however, suggests that this route is unlikely. Thus, moving forward, the government is likely to offer a series of half-steps aimed at appeasing the people marching in the streets, like the recent court decision to halt construction on the park. While the government is bound to restore order at some point in the future, unless Erdogan is willing to make some concessions, the dynamics that have underpinned the protests will continue and clashes could erupt at any time.