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June 02, 2013, Sunday

The İstanbul protests

The debate over the government's plans for historic Taksim Square developed into a unique form of protest in Turkey. Not just confined to İstanbul, the protest drew significant numbers of people in many Turkish cities. In general, discounting the usual marginal groups in the crowds, the protesters were ordinary people. The meaning and impact of the İstanbul protests will become key issues in Turkish politics. However, certain urgent points should be addressed immediately.

The main issue of the protests is not any of the typical ones of Turkish politics, like democratization, Kemalism or the Kurdish problem. The trigger was a city planning decision to be implemented in İstanbul's Taksim Square. A protest over an environmental issue has no precedent in the entire history of Turkey. This is a critical point. Unlike in the past, social and economic issues, and not issues linked to secularism, are likely to dominate Turkey's future public life. This may even end up with new coalitions of people with different ideological (religious and secular) backgrounds.

It is now clear that Middle Eastern states are automatically rendered politically paralyzed when their own citizens rise up in protest against their administrations. None of these states, including Turkey, are equipped to react tactfully to such a crisis. Their authority is quickly caught by the trap that their precipitous use of excessive violence engenders.

The presence of certain marginal groups among the protesters notwithstanding, the government should carefully revaluate the symbolic meaning of the İstanbul protests by the mainstream citizenry. The relevant authorities should now understand that they must invest ample time in persuading people of the virtues of their public projects. Democratically elected authorities cannot afford to give an impression of authoritarian tendencies. Thus the government should revisit its strategy of sending the police out against the citizenry quite so often, or at the slightest provocation. The sight of police on the streets every day may weaken the social legitimacy of the state in the long term. The gratuitous deployment of police is in fact the way to go about subverting the logic of having a police force at all, for the deployed police soon become the scapegoats for all that goes wrong in politics. Any group or actor, including the statesman, who has failed in some areas, be it unrelated to the issue that saw the government send in the police, is quick to point the finger of blame at the police.

Turkey has been successful during the last decade in overcoming its "big" problems. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government has a big stake in this success. However, equal care should be devoted to the many lesser issues that are particularly critical in daily life. Constitution-level reforms are indeed important; however, so are the practices of daily life. Thus, extensive social dialogue should precede any legislation that seeks to regulate daily life. Turkey has many social dynamics. Sociologically, no group can monopolize Turkish politics and society in the long term. Thus, the accelerated pace of the passing of a law or of the adoption of any political decision may create tensions. To prevent this, Turkish politics should develop a practice of social consultation.

How will the people who live in Anatolian cities perceive the İstanbul protests? Will they see the protests as another version of the republican rallies of 2007? Or will they develop a different understanding? Protests in big cities create parallel (positive or negative) reactions in Anatolian cities. For instance, the mass rallies in 2007 were strongly criticized by the larger conservative Anatolian public. Therefore, how the Anatolian public perceives the İstanbul protests will be critical in determining their impact on Turkish politics.

The major problem of Turkish politics is the absence of a social contract. Since its creation, the Turkish Republic has been without an inclusive social contract. Some groups have always been excluded. Turkish politics has been a game played by hegemonic groups only. The recent İstanbul protests are fresh signs of Turkey's acute need for a new, real, all-inclusive social contract. 

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