Why Turkey protests are a good thing
June 14th, 2013
12:07 PM ET

Why Turkey protests are a good thing

By Fareed Zakaria

"Another year, another country, another square," wrote the British columnist Timothy Garton Ash in the Globe and Mail this week.

He was referring, of course, to the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which many have compared to earlier protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or Tehran's Azadi Square, or Moscow’s Red Square, or Kiev's Independence Square.

In fact, what’s going on in Turkey is quite different from those earlier examples. Turkey is not a dictatorship, but it is a country in the midst of a culture war.

Let's start by remembering that the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the most popular politician in his country. His party has been returned to office three times with increasing parliamentary majorities.

But the country is deeply polarized. And while Erdogan’s party has large parliamentary majorities, because Turkey has many political parties that divide up the vote, it only once received 50 percent of the popular vote. I should note this is not uncommon in parliamentary systems. The last British government to get a majority of the votes cast in a general election was in 1931!

So, the very large minority that did not vote for Erdogan’s party, the AKP, are frustrated and deeply distrustful of it. This divide is political, but it is also based in class and culture.

More from GPS: Why AKP should abandon Erdogan

Erdogan's people, tend to be more conservative, religious, from places like Anatolia in the countryside. The people protesting in Taksim Square are urban, middle class, secular. Notice that none of the women protestors wear headscarves.

If you’re looking for historical parallels, think of the images of the democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. There, too, you had an elected government that believed it had a mandate to maintain order but protestors on the street who were deeply frustrated and angry. And there, too, there was a culture gap – between the college educated protestors and the blue-collar cops who were policing the streets.

Many of those protesting in Taksim Square are worried about a growing Islamization of Turkey. But that is not what has given these protests their force.

Most Turks are devout Muslims and Erdogan’s small moves to reflect that are actually quite popular, except with an Istanbul upper middle class.

No, what gives these protests force is that they gather together disparate groups all of whom worry about the growing authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan. His plan to amend the constitution and then run for a newly created "executive presidency" has worried many, even those who have supported him.

There may also be some Erdogan fatigue. I’ve noticed that leaders, even elected leaders, who make it to a decade in office find that the public can easily tire of them after that – think of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair after their years in office.

Turkey is a democracy but it is an immature democracy.  And it is dealing with a central democratic dilemma: how to treat the minority that did not vote for you? This is something that should resonate across the Middle East, as we watch, for example, a newly elected government in Egypt act in a high-handed manner towards those who didn’t vote for it.

What kind of culture of consensus do you owe the entire country, not just the 50 percent who voted for you? These protests have brought these issues to the fore – and the result is that Turkey's democracy will deepen and strengthen.

So we should certainly be worried about the violence in Turkey. But ultimately, the fact that this struggle is happening at all is, in a sense, good news.

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Topics: Protests • Turkey

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soundoff (103 Responses)
  1. dc

    Time will tell who is REALLY behind the rioting.......

    June 15, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  2. alper yildiz

    Yes Farid, this is the case. But the political system in turkey is the cause of this. The secular main opposition party of Turkey is like a enemy countries party. Two leaders Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu never come together, when you listen their speech you think that these are two big enemies. They main opposition party provocate this protest.

    June 15, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Reply
  3. Ozan

    It is interesting that %50 voted for AKP is mentioned as majority and rest as minority in the article, just like Erdogan always does. But vote percent of AKP is less than %50, and there is a high percentage of people who didn't attend elections.

    June 15, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Reply
    • Ozan

      And of course, what i was trying point is %50 is not bigger than %50.

      June 15, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  4. yuri

    Do you call Turkey democracy ?
    Democracy without free press ??

    June 15, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  5. synergynation

    They are using chemical weapons on the protestors. I'd call that a "terror state" government.

    June 16, 2013 at 2:20 am | Reply
  6. enis

    you know so little and blurp so much because your former opinions were just to give erdogan fuel to skyrocket the polls so what happened to you İ wonder erdogan is the same blockhead as ever tirannic and empty well live abroad and throw stones here or there as the wind blows

    June 16, 2013 at 9:51 am | Reply
  7. gamze

    have seen only part of your comment on GPS show on Turkish protests and uprising here on June 16. So sad to see you so out of context. It will be a good idea to do HW well at home before the show at CNN and the US audience. Some responsibility is in order. Better not to talk if you do not know.

    June 16, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  8. Sid

    Dear international community, Yesterday more than a million people gathered in Istanbul to support their elected government. Yesterday before day a similar gathering took place in Ankara... The exaggerated news on some of the international media who mostly show marginal groups' chaotic attempts in Istanbul to destabilize the country do not represent the realities of Turkey. The elections in Turkey are held with international standards and
    the government has won about 50% of all the votes (whereas the second biggest party got as close as 25%). The democracy in our country is mature and fully active.

    June 17, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply


    June 17, 2013 at 5:49 am | Reply
  10. hasan

    TURKEY democracy continues to rise with each passing day. The people are tired of interventions in the foreign forces in the country to democracy. SO PLEASE DONT TRY TO GİVE US democracy lesson. Turkey's economy grows stronger every day, but the countries of the european union is fighting the economic crisis. you need us. Get rid of fears anymore. Europe must accept us. If you do not accept us, will end up like Greece.

    June 17, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply
  11. Nes

    I found the article distorted. The article claims that it's a movement against Islam and there are no protestors with head scarfs. That's not true, and against the idea of what this movement is all about: human rights. Protestors are not against personal beliefs and/or religion. They are against human right violations, period!

    June 18, 2013 at 3:13 am | Reply
    • ErkinKoclar

      Police has much more power and brutal force in US. So why nobody protests them????

      June 19, 2013 at 4:09 am | Reply
    • ErkinKoclar

      So that means US Citizens doesn't have human rights ? Thus they are not human?

      June 19, 2013 at 4:10 am | Reply
  12. Rick McDaniel

    When you have a Islamist President, you have a dictatorship, whether you choose to recognize that truth or not. It is basically, a given fact, because he is in total power.

    The U.S. has a very similar situation, with a dictator who is in total power, taking liberties with our laws, and distorting them to please himself, and his political goals.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • ErkinKoclar

      Go to Statue and Liberty then try to protest Government there and lets see what will happen if you are brave enough to stand behind your words.

      June 19, 2013 at 4:07 am | Reply
  13. ErkinKoclar

    AKP Won Election in Turkey %46,58 in 2007 under Erdogan leadership and same AKP Won Election in Turkey with %49,90 in 2011. So respectfully Ak Party raised votes. RESPECT Democracy! Gezi Parki Protest which placed in restricted area and without any permission (so naturally Police interfere with the permission they have), will cause a significantly boost for AK Party's votes Why? Because that protest was turned to anti-government illegal action (which is supported by sad foreign forces who lost a lot in Turkey recently) and showing off some so-called actors and actresses who are recently unpopular and whole country saw what happened there. They called it as brutal force used by police. I am asking you what will an American police officer do if a citizen try to hit him? or even touch him intentionally? What rights does Police officers have in this country? So think about that and compare it with Turkish police officer in Gezi Parki. They were throwing rocks, stealing police officers equipments,even burning and damaging public estates etc. Be reasonable. I also want to mention one of my experience with CNN News during this protest which was clearly a proof for me that CNN is broadcasting false news even without checking the accuracy that could be done easily. It was told in the broadcast that Turkish tv channels do not show Taksim protests on tv and right away after i saw this live news, i surprised and i turned 3 major Turkish TV channels to check immediately, all of them were broadcasting same picture with CNN. Maybe CNN was taking broadcast from them who knows. So i will never turn on CNN channel again after this incident.

    June 19, 2013 at 4:03 am | Reply
    • Protinga

      A democracy that does not respect the civil and human rights of minorities and that does not share power with them deserves to be toppled by any means possible. The AKP, as an Islamist-leaning party, is just such a party that deserves to be toppled, just as Morsy's MD was.

      August 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  14. Georges

    Mr. Zakaria has his mind, somebody else has his mind. The truth is that those who are elected become from elected by the vote of the people to those chosen by the divine favour. This is not only the problem with Mr.Erdogan,it isMr. Vladimir Putin, it is Mrs. Angela Merkel, and many other elected people around the world in general is a sort of Global Political Class and Global Media who recycle each other. For us working people in different fields of life generally called electors this is frustrating because we vote what is cooked in the Global Political Class Kitchen. For many years the political stage of Albania is dominated by a well known criminal Sali Berisha, the people know very well that he and his party can not win the elections they can get maximum 30% of the votes, but the tricks or fraudulent means his clan uses are covered by a mass medium propaganda as a election result. This collaboration of mass medium with the Men in Power is not visible in Mr. Fareed Zakharia's article. Mr. Erdogan must leave in favour of somebody else in his party.

    June 21, 2013 at 8:29 am | Reply
  15. deniz boro

    Oh Well. As things go only blinds cannot see the rise of a new era. And those happen to be people who are in deep love with their power positions.

    June 25, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  16. deniz boro

    Something entirely new and never thought of is happening in Turkey now. A new kind of power which can not exactly be named as democracy is taking shape on the streets and in simple individuals' hearts and guts. It is the pride of being free to be an individual and as an individual to respect the other individual as he/she is togeher with his/her differences. It is not exactly democracy for democracy is just another means of administration. This is the manifastation of human rights by the common people. It is not any leftest, rightest or extremest group any gender, race, religion or any other kind of difference.
    Today while the government organized a Ramadan Iftar dinner on the Taksim square for its guests the Anti-capitalist and Revolutionist Muslim Chapullers invited their fellow Chapullers to a street Iftar which extended along the whole Istiklal avenue. Rather than fancy dining tables and menus, people sat on the ground and shared the food they brought with them and offered their food to the policemen (which is more suitable to the spirit of Ramadan).who were standing on guard against any kind of action "they regard as" vandalism.
    This whole Gezi affair was not exactly a demonstration against the government seat, it was the uprisal of Turkish people (and other peoples around the world) for basic human rights.

    July 9, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  17. Protinga

    A reasonable interpretation of events, except for the rather loose use of the term democracy. A democracy is not inclined to to worry about others and sharing powers with others. They are the majority, and they will wield power as they will, regardless of the minority and in spite of the minority. In some cases, the majority will seek to make the minority second-class citizens, as minorities in U.S. and Israel well know. What is needed in Turkey are written guarantees of civil rights, much like those in the Bill of Rights, which over time have helped minorities, like those in the U.S. share power. Freedom of the Press is essential, including bans against insulting the president and "Turkishness." And freedom from religious oppression and freedom of religion are also needed. Yet that is going to be a hard pill for the Islamists to swallow, since they regard Islam as the whole way of life governing society, culture, and politics. When you believe your ideology is sanctioned by god, then other ideologies are not just different but evil, to be eradicated. That, is really the crux of the matter, and only founding a state on the principle that culture is not fixed but evolving will lead to peace. Expect terrorism, bloodshed, and protests otherwise.

    August 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply
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