The events that took place in and around Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park marked the end of an era in Turkish politics. For the first time, actions spawned cross-cutting coalitions among groups that had previously been hostile or at least viewed each other with suspicion. Images of nationalists, secularists, Kurdish activists, environmentalists, liberals, soccer fans, gay and lesbian rights supporters, and even some Islamists making common cause against an authoritarian government and a callous police force have left an indelible mark on the Turkish political consciousness. They may not result in an immediate political realignment - Turkey's political parties remain entrenched in old divisions - but they offer a vision of what is possible once the traditional cleavages of Turkish politics are bridged.
Equally important was the complete loss of legitimacy of prime minister Erdogan as a democratic leader. Opposition to his heavy-handed ways had already been mounting, but his reaction to the protests revealed Erdogan's essential sectarianism like nothing else before. Unlike Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Erdogan refused to accept the protests as an expression of dissatisfaction and frustration on the part of large segments of Turkish society. Instead, he painted the protestors as hooligans and putschists who were making common cause with remnants of the old regime in order to topple him. Rather than conciliate, he polarised the nation further by appealing to divisive, Islamist themes to mobilise his own base. Erdogan and his inner circle spun surreal conspiracy theories that placed responsibility for the protests on financial speculators and western powers jealous of Turkey's success under his leadership.
So bizarre at times was Erdogan's behaviour that many wondered if he had lost his political touch. He could have chosen to empathise with the protesters at least a little, instead of unleashing his wrath (and the police) on them. That might have avoided the escalation, the rupture with domestic liberals, and his estrangement from the west.
However, there may have been a deeper political calculation in Erdogan's polarising response to the Gezi protests. It is impossible to understand Turkish politics today without appreciating the significance of the growing rift between Erdogan and the G? 1/4 len movement. The G? 1/4 lenists - followers of the influential Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher Fethullah G? 1/4 len - are a potent social force, particularly well represented in the media, police, and judiciary and other parts of the government bureaucracy. They had played an instrumental role in Erdogan's consolidation of power and, most critically, they had been the guiding force behind the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup plot trials which, surreal as they were, effectively dislodged the secularist old guard from power.
Once the common enemy - the military and its allies in the bureaucracy and media - was brought to heel, there was little to hold the coalition together. Erdogan began to worry, not without reason, that he had become too dependent on G? 1/4 lenist police and prosecutors, who could deploy their dirty tricks on him some day. The G? 1/4 lenists fretted that Erdogan was becoming too powerful, that he was impossible to control. The conflict broke into the open in a sensational fashion early last year, when a prosecutor tried to bring Erdogan's intelligence chief in for questioning on charges related to Kurdish terrorism. Erdogan reacted strongly, sensing that he was the intended target, and his supporters have since referred to the incident as an attempted coup.
Erdogan knows that the secularist political opposition is weak and does not pose a threat to him. Similarly, the Gezi protestors and the liberals remain largely unorganised for political action. The US and Europe need his support in Syria regardless of his domestic policies. So the only real danger comes from the G? 1/4 len movement, which could not only throw its support behind other leading members of the AK Party but, more seriously, could move to exploit the vast trove of intelligence it possesses on corruption among Erdogan's cronies.
So it is a fair bet that when Erdogan mapped out the strategy for his response to Gezi he had his sights set as much, if not more, on his 'loyal opposition' than on the protestors on the ground. The G? 1/4 lenist leadership is closely attuned to western public opinion and tries to maintain strong ties to the Turkish liberal intelligentsia. But the social strata from which the G? 1/4 len movement draws its adherents are essentially indistinguishable from the religious and socially conservative groups on which Erdogan relies for support. By emphasising Islamist symbols and working up anti-western sentiments, Erdogan adroitly mobilised his base. He also left G? 1/4 lenist opinion leaders in a quandary: if they opposed Erdogan too strongly then they would risk alienating their own base.
In the short term, the course of Turkish politics will be determined less by the liberal demands of Gezi protestors than by the highly illiberal infighting between Erdogan's close circle and the G? 1/4 len movement. But the Gezi movement offers Turkish society a glimmer of hope that a future, post-Erdogan polity might move beyond the traditional Islamist/secularist divide and espouse instead the values of a truly free society.
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