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October 30, 2012, Tuesday

Threshold of endurance

How sad. Ugly scenes in the Turkish capital and elsewhere during and in the aftermath of the national day “celebrations,” which took the form of street riots and violence, tear gas and anger, obstruction and frustration.

Boycotting of official receptions by the main opposition party took place, exactly as I had predicted in my previous article. I was, at the time of writing, left with no chance of being proven wrong.

How discouraging. This Oct. 29 is not only doomed to go down in history as a day of the primitives, but also threatens to open the way for a repetition next year. It may be the harbinger of a tradition that will remind us the republic is still in a state of infancy, as it heads towards its centennial. On one side, the powers’ vain euphoria in banning displays of dissent; on the other, a lack of sense and measure, putting the desperation of the opposition, still confused about the spirit of democracy, on display.

Before this picture, there is reason to be concerned. It tells us about more than stagnation, which has been noticeable for over a year now. It tells us about polarization, at a time when the government seems to have lost its appetite for dealing with freedoms and rights, both individual and collective. Disquiet is on the rise. “The threshold of endurance has been lowered,” according to Bekir Ağırdır, director of the respected pollster KONDA, who uses a traffic metaphor: “An important part of society has pulled, as it were, its cars to the security lane and chosen to wait with headlights on.” This has to do with a lack of confidence in the future. Unfulfilled expectations coupled with the state of the global economy are in the background. In his article for news portal T24, Ağırdır refers to KONDA’s regularly conducted “Polarity Index Barometer,” which has been speaking for some time about several fault lines. Turkish-Kurdish and Sunnite-Alevi are two of them, and the most apparent -- unchanged, or perhaps widened -- is the one between political Islam and modern secularism. This plays out most visibly and expresses itself most audibly in lifestyles.

The main dynamic that feeds the polarization, argues Ağırdır, is the sharp division between the support for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the various forms of opposition to it. We saw very clear proof of this during the national day, with the actors behind the fault lines chasing their own agendas, some utilizing the feast to forward their undemocratic agendas. Kurds, meanwhile, made use of their oppositional channels, from hunger strikes to closure of shops in their region.

“Polarization has encircled two-thirds of society,” warns Ağırdır. “Whatever we may choose to debate, whatever legal arrangement we choose to talk about, a third of society immediately diverge from the other two-thirds and take their categoric positions.” This worrisome phenomenon is reflected in politics as well as in daily life. Grey areas of social convergence narrow, interrelations are damaged and grounds for any reconciliation show wider cracks. It is all overshadowed by the partisanship -- pro or anti-AKP -- that crystallizes the main division.

The analysis by Ağırdır, which I find important, somewhat overlaps with the recent findings of Metropoll on the subject of growing anxiety. Both observations seem to speak of a possible bell curve in AKP policies, with the last elections as the turning point. We may even speak about entropy, but I am inclined to stay with the term “stagnation” for now.

The AKP rule, the completion of whose 10-year term as a single majority force we will commemorate on Nov. 3, has been marked by a long series of successes in many fields -- economy, infrastructure, healthcare, etc. -- reaching a popular peak in the June 12 elections last year. But, as Ağırdır reminds us, the critical threshold was the 2010 referendum, which was a severe blow to the main tenets of the ancient Kemalist regime, passing with 58 percent of the vote.

It could have responded to public expectations for a massive “perestroika” by reforming the weak link, namely the judiciary, and also by making improvements in the area of freedoms, enshrined in a new constitution. But, as the heavy influence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the AKP’s agenda was felt, with his personal concerns and ambitions occupying it more and more, even the grassroots of the AKP fell into a mood of uncertainty. Because the issues around freedom and basic rights remained in a pile, and the Kurdish dimension intensified with violence and acts of terror. Syria is now added to the picture, worsening the situation.

“The society’s instinct for survival is very high. So is its tendency to avoid war. Its pride is strong, but it prefers not to wage war for pride,” Ağırdır writes. The PKK and Syria together have sensitized social antennae, which are now alert to even small changes on economic issues. Fears and doubts are in play.

Therefore, are the scenes from the national day important, allowing us to foresee that the AKP is now entering a critical two-year phase in which its policies will be tested?

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