Global Perspectives - Antonia Colibasanu

During the last few days, I’ve heard many people talking with surprise about the protests in Turkey. I have also been repeatedly told that all analysis and policy briefs indicated that Turkey is the perfect model for any country that chooses the middle road between a Muslim state and a democratic one. I disagree and am surprised to hear these reactions.

If you go in Istanbul as a tourist, what you see belies the deep tensions that run within Turkish society – tensions that Stratfor has pointed out for a long time. The ruling party’s secular opposition has in fact long expressed its alarm at Erdogan’s policies, which the opposition says compromise the core founding principles of the state as defined by Kemal Ataturk.

Robert Kaplan and Reva Bhalla, in a piece on Turkey’s ambitions published May 1, aptly summarized the fundamentals of what we’re seeing now in the streets:

“At a time when Europe and other parts of the world are governed by forgettable mediocrities, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for a decade now, seethes with ambition. Perhaps the only other leader of a major world nation who emanates such a dynamic force field around him is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with whom the West is also supremely uncomfortable. […] Erdogan’s problem is that Turkey’s geography between East and West contains as many vulnerabilities as it does benefits. This makes Erdogan at times overreach. But there is a historical and geographical logic to his excesses. […]While Western elites ineffectually sneer at Putin, Erdogan enthusiastically takes notes when the two of them meet.”

More, this extensive analysis in April describes the obstacles that Erdogan has started to encounter in his efforts to revamp the Turkish political system and neutralize the country’s Kurdish insurgency.

These and other policies – from attempts to ban the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. to attempts to influence Islamist rebel groups in Syria – directly undermine the mandate by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who said that Turkey must remain secular and avoid extending its reach too far beyond Turkish borders. All these measures have the potential to provoke backlash. The growing dissent against the party crosses the lines of Turkey’s Islamist-secular divide. A growing number of Turks from different segments of society share the perception that the party is pursuing an aggressive form of capitalism that defies environmental considerations as well as Islamic values. Meanwhile, the number of concessions awarded to Erdogan’s closest allies is stoking increased frustration in the business sector.

This is why the weekend protests, while they have rapidly escalated, are only exposing the semi-dormant fault lines that delineate the country’s complex political struggle. As Stratfor shows in the most recent analysis, the protests would be highly significant if participation in them reaches the hundreds of thousands, if they manage to draw a wider demographic and if they eventually extend to areas that traditionally support the ruling party. So far, there is no indication that Erdogan will lose his grip on power.

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