Demonstrations in Turkey – labelled a Turkish Spring – differ from their Arab counterparts in that the Turkey’s (unlike Arab ones) economy has been booming.
The international media narrative about the protest movement sweeping Turkey this past week has centered on the idea of a “Turkish Spring,” modeled on the Arab Spring protests of the past few years. However, the “Spring” narrative overlooks one fundamental aspect of the Turkish uprising that differentiates it from the developments in neighboring Arab countries: the economy. While much of the unrest in the Arab world was partially triggered by economic malaise and mass unemployment in those countries, Turkey’s economy has delivered spectacular results over the past decade. This Turkish protest movement challenges the ideological consensus that people are willing to accept restricted social and political freedoms in return for economic growth.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth. In the decade since AKP’s rise to power, income per-capita has tripled, exports have increased almost tenfold and, during one quarter, Turkey had the highest GDP growth in the world. Thus, the scale and intensity of these protests came as a surprise to many political risk analysts. Why are Turks, especially urban, educated and affluent ones, rising up against their government?
The fact that these protests were sparked by the threatened destruction of Gezi Park, one of downtown Istanbul’s last public green spaces, symbolizes the economic values at stake. Although there is some dispute on the details, protesters contend that the park is being demolished to build yet another shopping mall. Such a move lines up with Erdogan’s usual development strategy of liquidating a public good and selling it off piece by piece to his business allies. This type of “privatization” is great for padding the statistics for economic analysis, but arguably bad for citizens’ quality of life.
While Erdogan’s economic policies have angered a political minority in the anti-globalization and environmentalist camps, his socially conservative, Islamist policies have threatened a much larger swath of Turkey’s secularist movement. The AKP has recently sparked outrage with religious restrictions on everything from alcohol to kissing in public. The political formula in which which people sacrifice social freedoms in return for economic growth has ideological echoes around the world from the United States to China.
Commentators have been quick to point to similarities with the popular uprisings in North Africa, but the Arab Spring was fueled by economic stagnation. Instead the 1989 protests in China’s Tiananmen Square, 24 years ago this week, are a better precedent. As in Turkey, the years leading up to 1989 featured economic reforms that led to double digit GDP growth, but no political liberalization. Similarly, privatization led to crony capitalism with lucrative benefits for those connected to the regime.
The AKP, in its defense, is quick to point out that it is not authoritarian because it has overwhelmingly won the democratic elections it has contested. In many ways Erdogan is a victim of his own political success in these protests. The AKP’s victories at the ballot box have thoroughly destroyed the opposition party and Erdogan has dismembered or privatized every organ of the state that might have served as a check on his power. With no legitimate public or private means of protecting their interests, it is not surprising that Turkey’s active liberal minority has launched this uprising in the streets. AKP will probably win a majority in the next round of elections, but economic factors are undermining Turkey’s status as a liberal democracy.
Most people remember Tiananmen Square by the CNN image of student protesters standing up to a tank. In Turkey, the viral image has been of two television sets, one of which displays CNN Turk showing a documentary about penguins, while the other displays CNN International showing Turkey’s largest city in flames. This was not state television propaganda, but a private media company that was simply afraid of the financial consequences of crossing Erdogan’s business allies. Thus, coverage of the protests has been left up to social media like twitter, which Erdogan dubbed “the worst menace to society.”
The AKP brand of neoliberal economics with socially conservative values is brilliant in that it manages to nominally follow every Western prescription for capitalist democracy, while building a single-party state behind the scenes. His fiercest secularist critics accuse Erdogan of using capitalism to turn the country into an Iranian-style theocracy, but from another perspective he is using Islamic values to shift the country into Chinese-style capitalist authoritarianism. In Gezi Park however, this model has run up against the fundamental problem of crony capitalism: there is only so much growth that can be artificially fueled by privatization before there are no public goods left to sell.