The continuing public protests in Turkey, which started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park but spread to several other cities, and the violence of the police crackdown, with three people killed and about 5000 injured, have exposed domestic fragilities that have surprised many around the world. The protests started on May 27, when small groups of people gathered to protest against plans to bulldoze the park, one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces, for a shopping mall, and rapidly snowballed as scenes of police violence went viral on the internet. The rapid urbanisation of Turkey’s main cities, with the construction of huge and ill-served residential complexes on the outer edges of urban sprawls, is one cause of discontent. Such unchecked expansion has also given rise to a new elite in the construction business; politically and socially conservative, many of the owners are natural supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan’s Freedom and Justice Party (AKP). They have, moreover, benefited from the lax implementation of building regulations; allegations of corruption abound. The building boom, in addition, may be more of an AKP political strategy than good business; 11 malls have already closed in Istanbul alone. Furthermore, the influx into Turkish cities of substantial numbers of building labourers from rural areas has caused tensions between the socially conservative labourers and longer-established urban residents, who for the most part strongly defend Turkey’s strict constitutional separation of faith and the state.
The crackdown, with Mr. Erdoðan dismissing the protests as “anarchy”, nevertheless confirms how much the Prime Minister stands to gain by it and by continuing to intimidate the Turkish press. He does not need the support of secularists while the AKP’s funding base and vote banks are secure; the party won half the vote in the last election. Secondly, Turkey’s geopolitical situation favours his authoritarianism. He is very bitter about the European Union’s message that Turkish accession is on indefinite hold, and will ignore EU opinion. Thirdly, Ankara can rattle Nato by even hinting at the closure of Nato bases, many of which were installed by Turkish military dictators in the Cold War and which the west may now see as a possible front against Iran. In addition, Turkey is too profitable for western businesses to stay away from, even if the protests are currently hitting tourism revenues. Yet the country’s long democratic traditions are now resurfacing, with AKP seniors expressing doubts about the repression and the police pulling back from occupied squares and streets. Mr. Erdoðan cannot and must not maintain his intransigence indefinitely.