Recent protests in Istanbul have highlighted Turkey’s unique, ongoing struggle for liberty. Look beyond the tear gas and water cannons, though, and it is easy to see why Turkey has entered a new, progressive phase in its democratic development.
While Turkey’s leadership bungles its response to the popular uprising, one thing grows clearer by the day: the military, now officially under civilian control, will not intervene on behalf of the protesters. But do not despair, for the time is ripe for the opposition to enact true change through the democratic process.
For nearly a century the armed forces played an oversized role in steering the nation’s affairs, hampering its ability to flourish into a true liberal democracy. That could be expected, as it was the military leader Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 on strict, secularist ideals. In the past, the military would have stepped in during similar street clashes, claiming that the elected leadership was fostering instability and working to dismantle Turkey’s much-prized secular institutions. Between 1960 and 1997, the military staged four coups — the final one considered a “soft coup” — ousting popularly elected, Islamist-leaning governments. Instead of merely fulfilling their traditional role in liberal democracies of ensuring protection from existential threat, the armed forces were an instrument deployed by generals behind closed doors to affect domestic political change.
However, since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power over a decade ago and the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the premiership in 2003, the Prime Minister has reined in the military and cowed its leadership. Erdogan, acting on allegations that the army was preparing yet more coup attempts in 2003 and 2007, arrested countless generals and other officers, many of which are still awaiting trial. Whether the government’s claims about the military plotters are believable or not, Erdogan’s overall popularity has bulwarked his successful counter-coup. Rightfully so, today it is the civilian leadership that has the ability to utilize the army against the anti-government demonstrators, not the other way around.
Now that the military cannot be counted on to hit the reset button, Turkey has a rare opportunity to prove that its democracy has matured over the past decade. Erdogan must understand that the protesters in the streets are not criminals, but people without a functional political party to represent their interests resorting to their last form of political expression available. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), once the leading spokesman for social liberalism and secularism, has been neutered along with its army allies. Despite being founded by Atatürk and ruling the country for the greater part of the last ninety years, the CHP faces extinction in its first time in prolonged opposition. If the CHP is unwilling to capitalize on the civil angst fomenting in cities across the country, it is imperative that opposition youths come forward and organize into a formal political party of their own.
Meanwhile, Erdogan must act with confidence, knowing that his office is no longer held accountable to the military establishment, only to the voters. He should meet with the opposition and work with it to move past their differences, making compromises wherever necessary. If the opposition has responsibly organized itself into a party, then it will be easier for it to accept Erdogan’s current leadership, abandon its street protests, and prepare for the next general election.
The road to liberal democracy is long, but no driver will see its end in the flash of a Molotov cocktail or down the barrel of a gun. It takes time to develop a society that respects its political minorities. Erdogan has invested too much in his legacy over the past ten years to have it all come crashing down. As the military remains quietly on the sidelines where it belongs, there should be no “call to arms,” only a “call to ears.” The people, it would appear, seem ready to listen.