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Turkish Uprising: Not The Spring You Think

By Ulaş Akıncılar*

The uprising, which surprised many, in Turkey is now more than ten days old and the number of people involved one way or another is not decreasing if not increasing.

After days of international broadcasts, now everyone knows how the incidents started and developed. Excluding Turkey’s ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) everyone accepts police’s extreme brutality against peaceful green protesters pushed people at home to go Taksim Square to show solidarity and as police’s brutality grew so did the crowd.

It is obvious to many that if the police had retreated and government showed some willingness to listen to the protesters and find the middle ground people would go back to their homes. But on the contrary government showed no willingness to step back and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan again and again made remarks underestimating, insulting, and accusing the people on the street.

Even if President Abdullah Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç tried to calm down the protestors with their remarks, Erdoğan rejected to apologize for police’s behavior and only reluctantly accepted police might have used excessive force at some cases.

From the first day whole world saw the ten thousands clashing with the police, masses crossing the Bosphorus Bridge to help protesters in the European side of Istanbul, people covered in blood, the never ending pepper spray shower, police lynching even people lying on the ground etc…
And of course everyone asked: What’s happening in Turkey, what do this people want? Naturally first reaction was to compare these views with the ones in Arab Spring countries but quickly everyone came to the right conclusion, which was “this is something different”.

I think “spring protests” are the right words to describe what’s happening but you shouldn’t have to look back to last couple of years, instead you have to look back to 1989.  After the military coup in 1980, leftist movement in Turkey was completely crushed and naturally trade unions were among the organizations asleep. Turgut Özal’s ANAP was ruling since 1983 with consecutive election victories and army was still an extremely strong actor in the political scene.

In the spring of 1989 public workers started a series of protests and strikes which spread like wildfire and reached great mass action next two years. This movement caught ANAP off the guard because it was a complete surprise. After many years of silence a crowd had woken up and shook the government. ANAP lost local elections that year and the strikes in 1990-1991 resulted with a decent amount of rises in wages.

Today the crowds on the streets are not public workers but middle class, urban youth demanding democracy, civil liberties and a secular government respecting all life styles. Erdoğan is right on one thing: “their problem is not with some trees.” What Erdoğan wrong about is this is not an act of foreign intelligence services trying to topple AKP or Ergenekon or any military coup supporter group. For not to see it you have to be blind; these are ordinary people demanding democracy and what drove them mad is passing the point accepting what’s happening in Turkey.

Think of a government telling women how many children to have, use which medical procedure to give birth, restricting alcohol sales in every way it can and banning ads, warning couples in metro by municipal staff to act proper to “moral” values and people protesting this scandal getting attacked by civil fascist in the capital city of “one of the biggest economies in the world”, etc… These are just examples from latest acts of this government. I’m sure everyone can give lots of different examples and those won’t be less annoying to anyone believing in democracy.

People see AKP now controls all judicial institutions. Famous Turkish pianist Fazıl Say found guilty on blasphemy charges because of a tweet he sent, which wouldn’t cause any trouble in a democratic country. People also saw the comical trials on political cases like Ergenekon, balyoz, KCK and lost their trust in the justice system.

People also saw how some media owners faced astronomical fines in tax related issues and how mainstream media turned to blind in latest years. People of course got mad with the news channel that aired a penguin documentary while Istanbul and many other cities were boiling but they also remembered how AKP’s steps in the past caused this. Of course this doesn’t mean owners of TV channels and newspapers are innocent. Many of them have other businesses and friendly ties with AKP proved to be very profitable so far.

A very large crowd now came to a point that had left nothing to do but puke it’s discontent and this crowd is really enjoying being crowded and standing against something they truly disapprove. A large group of young people who never attended a protest before are now on the streets and their strongest weapon is an unprecedented sense of protest humor. The jokes we’ve been seeing on web sites are now on the walls and this lethal weapon is pointed to the government.

This movement is capable of using Erdoğan’s insults against him with this sense of humor they have. Do a google search for “chapulling” and see how the demonstrators wearing the word “çapulcu (looter)” Erdoğan called them as a badge of honor. They call it “excessive use of intelligence” against police’s excessive use of force. That’s why government and it’s supporters are so desperate to find acts of violence done by the protesters. The crowd is just too legitimate to declare terrorists, looters.

They don’t have a leader, an organization, a strategy, an ideology but they have an incredible amount of determination, energy and support.
So what will happen next? First I have to say, this energy on the street won’t disappear. Suddenly protesting got out of being only exercised by “marginal leftists” or “traitor Kurds” and became very legitimate for the first time in many years. Millions of people are now saying “wow, I would never have guessed we were so crowded and would stand this strong”.  The genie is out of the bottle!

I am unable to guess where this energy will channelize in the following months or years. Main opposition party CHP is shocked with all this going on, too. CHP is trapped with it’s orthodox secular, nationalist politics and completely incapable of answering the needs of this uprising. MHP is carrying on with it’s exaggerated nationalist identity and not aware of even itself where it is standing in economic perspective.

CHP tried to take some part in the uprising but they were in inertia as usual and the crowd didn’t want any political party to take possession of this uprising anyway. MHP didn’t look approving this from the first second and ordered it’s voters to stay home.

Both parties have decent amount of loyal voters but as seen in late 90’s CHP voters are more inclined to leave if a favorable center-left power emerges. (And for the ones, who wonder, i have to say that army is pretty much out of the equation. Fortunately, that chapter in Turkish politics looks over.)

Kurdish movement’s party BDP is now choosing not to move against AKP because of the peace and new constitution negotiations. When thinking of CHP’s and MHP’s attitude toward Kurdish movement in the past it’s hard to blame BDP.

As of 2011 AKP is holding both center-right and religious politics. Even if AKP loses it’s liberal-capitalist identity and a more secular and powerful center-right actor emerges (with the absence of another strong religious party) AKP still has 30% support. Nearly everyone agrees AKP has a level of support, close to 50%, unless the incidents of late gave much damage. 

Whether it’s because of “no dictator likes to take a step back and give the public a sense of victory” or “he has a plan in his mind” or “his advisors are so incompetent they are reading this movement wrong and steering him in the wrong way” Erdoğan is not pulling back and on the contrary raising the tension and creating a competition between “his 50%” and “The Marginals”.

After constitutional court closed Prosperity Party for it’s Islamist agenda the party separated into two; reformists and traditionalists. When founding his party back in 2001, Erdoğan and his friends (the reformists) declared they took their old shirt (Islamism) off and wore a new shirt (conservative democracy). AKP became a conservative democratic party with an agenda of pursuing European Union membership and liberal economics.

Last ten years Turkish economy grew rapidly and business world became a good ally of AKP, although AKP’s conservative and authoritarian policies grew also. But what happened last couple of days may bring problems to this coalition.

Since 28th of June, Bourse Istanbul 100 index lost 18,5% of it’s value in terms of USD and sharpest moves happened during Prime Minister Erdoğan’s remarks raising the tension. Turkish lira which started to depreciate due to the global developments experienced a steeper fall because of the political uncertainty.  USDTRY rose above 1,90 level for the first time after one and a half years. Turkish government bond prices shared the same fate with the lira.

Foreign investors’ exodus hit all Turkish assets last week which is very understandable because this move was a combination of both a general sale in emerging markets and a country specific political uncertainty.

After his trip to North Africa, Erdoğan commented on the moves in financial markets during his speech at the airport. According to Erdoğan these moves were the act of forces “speculating” to threaten his government and “interest lobby” trying to drive rates up. And of course he was determined to fight against these forces as he did in the past.

I want to believe that people in charge of Turkey don’t believe this imaginary enemy called “interest lobby” and they all come up with this expression to influence ordinary people who don’t know how financial markets work.

Whatever the reason is now tension is high and the move in foreign exchange, bonds and stocks will cause problems on the economy and the timing is far from being good. With interest rates on the rise and EUR and USD suddenly got expensive it’s inevitable some new investment projects will be delayed and lots of businesses will see their costs rise. The impact on tourism will not be severe maybe but will not be mild also. Business confidence will definitely fall. One thing to remember is, on the back of an impressive growth rate in 2011 Turkey already experienced a hard landing last year. 

Also Turkish economy was already struggling with a big current account deficit and money outflows will make the matters worse. With economic problems added to political uncertainty Turkey is sure not one of the most luring locations for foreign investors.

Only thing now will help the economy is Erdoğan taking some steps back, trying to rebuild it’s broken democrat image and giving concessions to the people he hurt and offended. Apparently Erdoğan is not willing to do this and taking the other route which is to show his absolute power must not be questioned.

If AKP’s officers can’t change Erdoğan’s mind then it’s hard to think of a calm state of politics in the next couple of years and it will be increasingly difficult for AKP to resist early election calls which is scheduled for June 2015 now.

To sum up; there’s no imminent danger to AKP ruling because of the lack of political parties capable of answering the calls of the uprising. But it will only be a matter of time this energy takes a more political shape and the rising tension will only hurt more the already fragile Turkish economy which will erode support to AKP further.

If Erdoğan insists on ignoring the calls of people on the streets it’s hard to see a bright future for neither the Turkish economy nor AKP.

*Ulaş Akıncılar is a "trader & financial consultant in Istanbul
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