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.

Democracy Now! does a special report on the protests:

Posted in Turkey | 18 Responses | Print |

18 Responses

  1. I thought it telling that Erdoğan has nixed the Ottoman barracks project in favour of a mosque.* This might signal an even more stretched reach to the past and its traditions with a religious flavour if not fervor. Any demonstration against some religious edifice might be seen as being sacrilegious, an easier form of dissent to counter and to provide support for condemnation, for those who might be seen as condemning the nation. In the comments to the first linque, “DutchTurk” mentions the increase in mosques (including the reopening of ‘Aya Sofya’) in a slightly condescending manner. There are almost 3,000 mosques in Istanbul (5,343 km sq & 2,593 people/km sq) now.** Others are being built or modified.***

    I also thought it laughable that the U.S. Government is concerned about the use of force in quelling the protests in Taksim. I don’t recall such expressions for citizen safety during the run-up to the Iraqally Debacally. In fact, the American paramilitary police force in Oakland, CA (Governor Jerry Brown’s former posting as mayor in 2003), for example, did something quite similar when confronting those in dissent of the impending invasion of Iraq.@ It’s interesting how another country’s problems serve as excuses to whitewash the same issues at home.

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  2. Islamist in Pakistan invariably praised the Turkish model and presented it as proof that the Islamic model as adopted by Turkey is working efficiently and by implication should be emulated by all a Islamic countries. In Pakistan Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif both cited Turkey as model country. I personally do not see anything Islamic in the model. It is the good old neoclassical model rationalizing privatization, deregulation and unequal distribution of wealth and rolling back the frontiers of state. The spillover effects of many vices associated with this model are now emerging in Turkey. Let us see how the pendulum swings now.

  3. If you allow me a tangential point to this:

    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…

    I have been very interested in these “differential outcomes”, and would add Brazil as another example of neoliberalism actually working. Amazingly, the leaders who implemented it were nominally from the left.

  4. The demonstrations will stop like magic if Erdoğan would give up his plan to visit Gaza.

  5. This morning’s Globe and Mail carries an insightful piece from Turkey by Adnan Khan ( in which he writes that the protests started as a demonstration against the AKP’s pro-development, pro-business policies and are morphing into something much larger. Khan’s point is that Mr. Erdogan’s arrogant, out-of-touch and over-blown reaction has created a much larger movement.

    Mr. Khan isn’t saying anything that differs markedly from Dr. Cole’s observations but his is an interesting take. He concludes his piece by writing, “Turkey’s rapid rise under single-party rule has produced a leadership that feels free to do as it pleases. Those days, however, may be coming to an end.”

  6. People aren’t facing the dragon and trying to get him going as the perfect storm approaches all around us. Come on Puff..
    When the Turkish gov put out statement that it wasn’t an Arab Spring type uprising -it guaranteed in my mind that it was.
    There is today in atmosphere massing a great heat casting veil of a cloak that is enshrouding us like a lid on a pot.
    ‘Come on Puff’ refers to a song I liked when I was a little boy. And could ask my father about questions of rain coming..
    Now a perfect storm seem is growing all around us capable o no mercy an no forgiveness and out of control. So Puff hear me.. Wake up and get going and kick some butt.

  7. I thought I once saw a video of police in New York making mass arrests on Brooklyn Bridge, but I am not sure it is comparable.

  8. Poland: Stagnation and Strikes Warn of Stormy Seas Ahead
    Written by Ben Gliniecki
    Thursday, 30 May 2013

    The Polish economy was the only European economy to avoid a technical recession in the wake of the global collapse in 2008. But the whirlpool of capitalist crisis continues to grow and as its pull on the creaking ship of the Polish economy intensifies, the strain is beginning to show. From the capitalist point of view, the Polish ship of state appears to be in good working order – the Polish left is weak and neo-liberalism dominates. But below the waterline social unrest and eye-watering inequality reveal the real state of the rotting capitalist system.

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  9. There are many different measures of income inequality among nations and you can get different sort orders depending on which one is referred to.

    In the one of the latest cited below (fwiw) Turkey and the United States rate very high on the list:

    “The Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) maintains its own GINI index and related statistics for member countries. According to a 2011 OECD report, “over the two decades prior to the onset of the global economic crisis, real disposable household incomes increased by an average 1.7% a year in OECD countries. In a large majority of them, however, the household incomes of the richest 10% grew faster than those of the poorest 10%, so widening income inequality.” In the late 2000s, Chile had the highest GINI coefficient, after taxes and transfers, among OECD member countries. The United States, Turkey and Mexico came right before it. At the other end of the scale, Slovenia, Denmark and Norway led the ranking with the lowest levels of income inequality.”

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  10. As a number of wise on the ground commentators have observed (e.g.barcin Yinanc in her column in Hurriyet English) a generation raised apolitical in the wake of the coup 30+ years ago has become active. As my own friends there tell me, they are surprised to find themselves in the streets, but they are there, uncertain what comes next, but unwilling to go home.

    Seyla Ben Habib’s essay in today’s NY Times is valuable because she seems to have been watching and knows how Erdogan works. She made the connection (as few do) between the timing of the PKK negotiations and Erdogan’s scheme for an imperial presidency. (two years ago, he had said that unlike CHP, he would have hanged Ocalan immediately!)

    A lot of the western left has been late to the party, still believing in RTE’s “moderate Islam” pledge and willing ot overlook his neoliberalism because identity trumps class. I, too, had been optimistic, but I’m also been watching and listening.

    It’s a two-day strike for now, but the action needs to be ongoing when RTE returns.

    • I think for a lot of people like me it’s also a matter that Erdogan has ended the slavish obediance of Turkey’s military-dominated regime to US-NATO dictates – though not without a push from protestors in 2003. Between the refusal to let US forces invade Iraq through his territory and the crisis over the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid convoy, we saw a NATO country take a stand against US hegemony, and we would like to see a lot more of that, precisely because NATO is composed of democracies that have given up their independent foreign policy by having their militaries standardized under US command structures.

      We forget what it was like 10 years ago when the neocons were fooling our media into believing they could control everything and everyone without resistance. For anyone to stand up to the US at all, even authoritarians like Putin, meant the spell of this drivel over our public might be broken. Instead, we believed the lies too long and our country got broken instead.

  11. @D. Mathews

    “[…] would add Brazil as another example of neoliberalism actually working.”

    Ideology blinds some people. The FHC’s government was neoliberal, a lot of privatizations, but ended with high inflation and high unemployement. That caused Lula’s election.

    The first half (4 years) of Lula’s government was a transition phase. No more privatizations, minimal wage growth, and bolsa família, but the macroeconomic policy can be defined as neoclassical under Meireles as charmain of Banco Central do Brasil (BACEN). Second half of Lula’s government moved more to left, started some big public works (transposition of the São Francisco river, Transnordestina, Norte-Sul, PAC) and a huge popular home building program (Minha Casa Minha Vida). Dilma’s government is more left, macroeconomy policy changed to keynesian when they made Tombini Bacen’s chairman would and more public works (PAC2, Minha Casa Minha Vida), intensification of Bolsa Família (Brasil Carinhoso) and growth of minimal wage. Petrobas (the state controled oil producer and one the “private” companies that book you link say is a brazilian multinational) too get the legal rights for explore pre-sal (3 bills aproved at Bazil’s legislative) that will generate a public fund for finance education. Recently, Dilma lowered the eletric energy tariffs against the interests of privatizated energy companies and decided to “import” cuban doctors (they too will “import” portuguese and spanish doctors and engineers, but you will not read it at the brazilian press).

    As brazilian, I can afirm that the last 10 years are not an example of “neolibelarism actually working”. And the 10 years before are a crude example of neoliberalism total fail.

    • The problem, Joao, is that in America we’ve been so brainwashed by corporate media that we don’t even know how far to the Right the entire political spectrum has been dragged, compared to the outside world. I mean, we’re being indoctrinated by the Tea Party that Nazis were actually Communists, and that Franklin Roosevelt was actually a Communist, and the Federal Reserve was actually Communist.
      Hell, maybe Lincoln was actually a Communist. Who does that leave as representing free enterprise, exactly?

  12. Turkey is a parliamentary democracy. Can’t the protestors oblige the government to call snap elections?

    Also, if the opposition replaces Erdogan’s party, how will that affect Turkey’s support of the rebels in Syria?

    • The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) supports al-Assad.

      Since Erdogan has a clear majority in parliament he is in no danger of losing a vote of no confidence or of seeing his government fall, at least for now. He will likely run for president next year.

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