Defiant Erdogan Risks Turkish Economy, as Unions enter the Fray

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is now risking Turkey’s economic miracle by his imperious reaction to the protests in dozens of cities that have roiled Turkey and are entering their fifth day. Two are dead and hundreds injured. The Turkish stock market, which had been up 300% since 2009, has taken a hit. The country’s $29 billion a year tourism industry is also imperiled (Erdogan should ask his friend, Egypt’s President Muhammad Morsi, what social turmoil does to tourism). One of Erdogan’s boasts is that he has attracted billions in foreign investment, and in 2012 foreign direct investment was on the order of $16 billion (Turkey is ranked 13th in the world as a desirable place to put in such money). But he’ll find that investors are skittish about urban street battles.

The news that Turkey’s Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), representing coalition of 11 trade unions with 250,000 members has now announced a two-day general strike in sympathy with the protesters signals the entry of an element of class conflict into the movement. The unions in Turkey are weak, having been destroyed by the secular right wing military dictatorship of the 1980s, which had the side effect of also destroying the Turkish Left as a viable political bloc. The ruling center-right Justice and Development Party probably benefited in implementing its pro-market policies from the weakness of unions. The unions and the remains of the Left may see an opportunity for revival.

Erdogan has blamed everyone but himself for the public discontent, decrying the ‘lies’ spread on Twitter, hinting darkly that the opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party [CHP] had conspired to provoke the protests, and now even saying that the demonstrators are ‘linked to terrorists.’

Erdogan’s theory of what is happening shows an unflattering streak of paranoia and arrogance, and, worse, it is clearly wrong. If a prime minister cannot understand what is happening in his own country, it is a very bad sign.

The protests were sparked by opposition among young people in Istanbul to a plan to get rid of one of that city’s last public green spaces, Gezi Park in the bohemian Taksim area. Erdogan wanted to restore an Ottoman barracks there, and to put a mall in the building. The combination of hero-worship of the Ottoman Empire and retail shopping may seem incongruous, but it symbolizes the Justice and Development Party’s [AKP] platform. The party represents the private Anatolian and some urban business classes who take pride in Turkey’s Islamic and Ottoman past. Its rival, the Republican People’s Party, represents public sector workers, secular intellectuals, the military, and the old Kemalist urban elite tied to Etatism or state-led industrialization and a French-style secularism that views religion with great suspicion and decries the Ottomans as reactionaries. The Republican People’s Party dominated Turkey’s politics for long stretches of the twentieth century, and actively persecuted religious activists like the current prime minister. Decades ago, Erdogan was imprisoned by the Republican People’s Party Establishment for reading out a militant poem with Muslim imagery that made minarets spears. He sees that party and its generals as centers of conspiracy and sedition, and imagines that those young people in the streets are directed by the rival party.

What actually happened is a typical 21st-century networked protest movement with little formal organization and no leadership (i.e. it is acephalous). When police used excessive force against the Gezi Park protesters last Friday, it sparked sympathy demonstrations in Ankara and other cities. The protesters pushed the police out of Taksim Square and occupied it. The youth who are rallying seem most disturbed by police brutality and social regimentation, and it is probably true that they weren’t in the main voters for the ruling AK Party or particularly impressed by the Ottoman Empire or by high end retail. The protests snowballed, reaching 67 cities. The fiercest fighting seems to have often been around bohemias or cafe/ bar districts, public spaces that the religiously-tinged Justice and Development Party has subtly encroached on (it banned alcohol sales after 10 pm and public displays of emotion). Although the media closest to power and the state did little reporting on the demonstrations, social media spread the word, thus incurring Erdogan’s ire.

Neoliberal policies of privatization have had different impacts in different countries. In Argentina they caused economic collapse, and contributed to sparking the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. On the other hand, Poland and Turkey seem to have done relatively well with such policies. I doubt anyone entirely understands the differential outcomes, but obviously there are intervening variables beyond those typically considered by the modeling economists who see public sectors as inefficient.

But Turkey could be reaching the limits of public acceptance of its post 2002 model, of social and religious conservatism, vastly expanded foreign trade, and consumerism. Rapid economic and social change always produces discontents. While Erdogan may be right that young people defending their bohemian public spaces are not likely a long term challenge to the government, the entry of labor unions into the fray is much more serious. The protests could be morphing into an anti-Neoliberalism political and social movement of a sort that have shaken governments elsewhere, as with the supplanting of Neoliberals by the leftist Kirchners in Argentina or the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy by the Socialists in France. 

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