Turks in Istanbul have watched their green areas within the city slowly disappear for a while, so it’s understandable that they were livid when Prime Minister Erdogan’s government decided they would demolish Gezi Park, located in the city’s main commercial district, and plant a shopping mall in its place.
However, what started as peaceful protests has developed into violent clashes between protesters and police — with accusations of excessive force by the government — over wider political angst about Erdogan’s administration, widely considered to be authoritarian in nature. According to Human Rights Watch, free speech is one of Turkey’s main problems, and Erdogan’s main fault is that he thinks because he won most of the votes during election season, he can naturally do whatever he wants without the population’s consent.
Clearly, Gezi Park is a microcosm of seething resentment that has deeper roots, and urban planning spats like this are at the bottom of the list of grievances. A poll conducted in 2012 among the Turkish population showed that only 28% of the people believe the government is handling the Syrian crisis as effectively as possible, and only 28% feel safer this year (2012) than last. When asked whom they’d vote for in the next election, Erdogan received only 23% of the decided “yes” vote. Whether Turkey’s political system is in line for a change is a complex discussion, but how do its neighbors and the West view this possibility, and what does it mean for the Arab world?
Turkey has been lobbying hard for entry into the European Union, but excessive violence against protesters does not bode well on its application packet, as it has been chastised for such government abuse before as well as other problems with its policies. Turkey is awkwardly juxtaposed within a maze of political systems including the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucuses region, and is constantly judged by the United States on its foreign policy in the Arab world. If current protests in Turkey were to topple the government, the conflict in Syria could easily spill over the border and gain in size and complexity, something nobody has the stomach for.
Aside from Syria, Turkish upheaval is unlikely to alter the power balance in the Middle East and Central Asia. The protest movements that were able to get off the ground in Arab states with weaker security apparatuses have done so, leaving power players like Saudi Arabia and Iran intact.
Nobody expected the protests to erupt the way they have, bringing together all kinds of minority groups with their own squabbles against each other towards a common cause against a leader that they see as far too paternalistic for their liking. Erdogan has been a relatively popular man in Turkey, turning around many problems during his tenure. But more moderate players who preach better voter representation are stoking the fire to prime the public for election season.
If Erdogan wishes to maintain a largely popular legacy as well as the democratic ideals he claims his government stands for, he must listen to the street’s laundry list of grievances against his administration for a more representative government and respond tangibly. If he does, Turkey’s protesters will arguably become the first successful group to peacefully alter their country for the better in the neighborhood. If he doesn’t, he may find himself joining the club of besieged Middle Eastern leaders with no way out but violence and disgrace.