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Turkey Protests Symptomatic of Deeper Problems

  • Al Pessin

Turkey’s protests have expanded from a largely youthful movement focused on a local development issue in Istanbul to involve demonstrations across the country by a wide cross-section of the population. In addition, the message has broadened.

Fires burned in central Istanbul as police moved to clear Taksim Square, the focal point of the protests. The move further angered the activists, who have vowed not to back down. And they seem to be gaining support in the country’s mainstream, including a protest march by lawyers.

Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed the protesters as “naïve” and “emotional,” and suggested they are influenced by “foreign elements.”

Some see deep divisions

But Turkey expert Dimitar Bachev of the European Council on Foreign Relations disagrees.

“It is a symptom of a crisis. This is an important turning point because a substantive segment of the electorate has shown a yellow card to the prime minister. Many people in the ruling party have drawn the right lessons. But judging by the heavy-handed, angry reaction of the prime minister, positive developments won’t be easy,” said Bachev.

For many Turks, this is about what they call ‘creeping Islamization’ of their once staunchly secular society. It also is about what some see as a government that after 10 years in power, however, is just not listening to anyone who opposes it.

Turkey expert Gül Berna Özcan of Royal Holloway University of London, visits the country frequently.

“Each time I traveled to Turkey, I saw the society more divided, more angry, more dismayed by the government. But also they felt helpless. Some people could even speculate some months ago when I was in Turkey that this could end up with a civil war because people are so polarized,” said Özcan.

Demanding rights, inclusion

In spite of the widespread protests, Turkey is nowhere near that. Analysts say the government has a lot to do to repair its image, though, even among some of its own supporters. More broadly, analyst Özcan sees something positive amid the all the unrest.

“Long term, this a very healthy development, showing that people want to actually have their rights and they are ready to defend it,” said Özcan.

What’s needed, many analysts say, is for the ruling party to recognize that and move to be more inclusive, rather than just sending in the security forces.

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