February 13, 2014, IR Review Staff Blog
By Fatima Mohie-Eldin
Over the past few years, Turkey has witnessed growing dissatisfaction with the AKP government, and specifically with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who many feel does not acknowledge the needs of his constituents. In the past year alone, “Turks have protested against the deteriorating state of press freedoms, a reckless construction boom, a draft law placing new curbs on abortion, [and] the government’s response to the civil war raging in neighboring Syria,” among other restrictions on their civil liberties.
This discontent garnered international attention In May 2013 when even larger protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park as a means to impede the park’s destruction, which was set to be demolished in order to build a shopping mall. From there, what began as an environmental protest grew into an anti-government movement. Protesting in the street became a forum for voicing any and all grievances with the government and exceeded protests in years past in terms of size and scale.
Erdoğan’s response only made matters worse when he sent in police to combat the movement with violence and brutality, fueling the rebellious fervor. Demonstrations began spreading to other major cities in Turkey, such as Izmir and Ankara, and have also continued to arise periodically in Istanbul, mainly in Taksim Square and the connecting street Istiklal Caddesi due to their central location. As a result, riot police have now become a staple in the area as a precaution.
Furthermore, the prime minister’s political rhetoric in recent months has done little to assuage the anti-government sentiments. For instance, in November 2013 Erdoğan made many university students, both Turkish and foreign, uneasy when he “condemned female and male students’ living under one roof,” and vowed “to take measures against such instances.” Given the ambiguity of this statement, students initially felt anxious over what this could entail as Erdoğan had hinted at investigations but gave no indication of a timeline or whether there would be penalties involved.
However, perhaps the most incendiary developments transpired in December 2013 after extensive corruption charges came to light regarding members of the government as well as some prominent businessmen as part of three separate corruption probes. On December 17 numerous suspects were arrested, including the sons of the Economy Minister, the Environment and Urbanization Minister, and interestingly enough the Interior Minister, who actually controls the police forces. These probe operations were initiated by prosecutors, who subsequently ordered the arrests, in 2012 following a large transfer of gold to Iran through Turkey. “Since then three ministers and seven MPs from the AK Party have resigned,” including Hakan Şükür, who publicly denounced Erdogan as he left office.
In the aftermath of these probe operations, the AKP has been visibly shaken with rumors of divisions and tension within the party. Publicly, rather than condemn the corruption charges Prime Minister Erdoğan chose instead to claim that the government is facing both an internal and external enemy, determined to see the downfall of the AKP. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party in Turkey, has even called for Erdoğan to resign as prime minister, claiming that “the government has lost its legitimacy,” not only because of the corruption, but also because Erdoğan has not publicly denounced the corruption, making it seem instead as if he is actually defending it.
The extent of the corruption within the government has only worsened anti-government and anti-AKP sentiments and led many Turkish citizens to again protest in Taksim to voice their growing anger and frustration. Once again, Erdoğan’s response proved inflammatory when on January 18, a bill banning medical professionals from treating injured people without government authorization came into effect, in a move to hinder aid received by the protesters. Rather than act as a deterrent to further protests, this move will likely intensify unrest and could therefore have debilitating effects. It will also impact the victims of occurrences unrelated to the protests, such as natural disasters, making it even more devastating.
The AKP first rose to political prominence with widespread support in 2002, as they seemed to represent cultural values but also economic liberalism and democracy and they effectively held their ground against military intimidation in 2006-2008, something that no other political party in Turkey had ever been capable of. However after nearly 11 years in power, it seems that Erdoğan has been gradually trying to expanding governmental control over the country. And as tension between civil society and the government increases Erdoğan pursues actions that only worsen this divide and fuel the political discontent that has been brewing, feeding into claims that he is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
As of now it is unclear what lies ahead for Turkey. A large portion of the population is unsatisfied with the AKP, and their indignation is only growing. Furthermore, the AKP’s power base seems unstable, especially following the corruption probes, but given the control Erdoğan has over the country many are unsure if he can be removed from power.