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Why Turkey protests are a good thing

Why Turkey protests are a good thing
Saturday, June 15, 2013 - 4:45pm

"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.

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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