Cracks under the surface?

A seemingly innocuous protest against the demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul has led to large-scale protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The use of excessive force by the police has merely fanned the flames of discontent. With the ardent gaze of the EU and the international media fixed on transcontinental nation, this represents the sternest test of the Turkish premier’s decade long tenure.

The Republic of Turkey has had a chequered political history in the last century. After a transition towards a multi-party democracy in 1945, the country was subjected to a spate of military coups d’état. It can perhaps be said the political barometer of the country during each time-period could be quantified as a two-dimensional plot with secularism-Islamism and democracy-military plutocracy as contrasting pairs of extremities. The ascension of Erdoğan in 2002 ushered a period of relative stability and mild economic growth. However, his subsequent re-election was not without controversy. Erdoğan and his center-right party, The Justice and Development Party have slowly introduced Islamist laws like restricting alcohol consumption and abortion. More importantly, it has kept the country’s media on a tight leash and silenced dissenters. The recent protests can be said to be a cumulative reaction to Erdoğan’s policies.

Unlike the abundant media coverage of the much-vaulted Arab Spring. The protests have been conveniently ignored by major Turkish media agencies. This informational vacancy has been filled by numerous social media entities majorly Twitter and Facebook. Presently, the police response has been tempered. However, the Turkish premier has defiantly declared that the redevelopment of the Gezi Park will continue as planned. His defiance might just have mushroomed protests across the country.

The Turkish government response to these tumultuous events will be pivotal to Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union. Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy in his speech had implored Turkey to embrace democracy and reign in the police brutality. His speech frequently referenced European values and Turkish attempts of European accession. Erdoğan’s response was a fiery tirade against the perceived hypocrisy of the EU with reference to the protests in the United States and the United Kingdom. His belligerence did not end there. On his return from the European Commission, he had vowed to end the protests as he found them bordering on illegality. However, he did concede that there were initially valid environmental concerns on the redevelopment plans.

These demonstrations are likely to drag on till the end of the year. While the protesters are said to be apolitical, the shortage of information does suggest an apparent lack of neutrality in most media outlets, this article included. Erdoğan’s rise to power via the democratic process might partially vindicate his actions and make it very unlikely to dislodge him. A violent upheaval would render the much of Turkey’s European accession efforts void and would irreparably damage the country status as a regional stronghold. The recent events will not change the existing status quo immediately. However, it seems like the stage is set for next year’s general elections.

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