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Deconstructing the Anti-Government Protests in Turkey

21/06/2013 09:09 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 10:12 BST
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The recent international media coverage of the Turkish protests, drawing heavily on images of police violence, surging crowds and clouds of tear gas, may give the outside observer the impression that Istanbul is on the cusp of outright revolution. The BBC's Paul Mason described the possibility of the protests evolving into a 'Turkish Tahrir'. From Noam Chomsky to the International Trade Union Confederation, voices worldwide have condemned the Turkish government's admittedly heavy-handed response.

For the past three weeks, the park, along with the square, has become a hub of activity, with thousands of encamped protesters confronting water cannon and tear gas-wielding riot police. But despite the harsh rhetoric and the violence, the reality is that Prime Minister Erdogan has little to fear; the unrest is restricted to small pockets of certain cities and there is a clear lack of any anti-government consensus. The government will probably win the referendum that has been recently announced to decide on the future of Gezi Park, therefore delivering another political win for Erdogan.

While the recent unrest has led to international condemnation of the Turkish regime, on a domestic level, the picture is less clear. Anti-government protests receive global coverage, but pale in comparison to the recent pro-Erdogan rallies, in which hundreds of thousands of Turks journeyed into Istanbul to show their support for the elected government. Erdogan is playing the protests to his advantage, using unrest to catalyse a consolidation of his power base. While young, relatively affluent and educated urbanites may be outspoken in their opposition of the regime, it is clear that this is by no means representative of Turkey's population as a whole. After all, Erdogan's mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK) has won three consecutive and fair elections.

While it may be argued that Erdogan acts as though an electoral mandate grants him absolute authority, questioning the legitimacy of his continued rule is misguided. Furthermore, GDP has grown at an average of 5% a year since AK took power in late 2002, bringing prosperity to thousands of Turks. The reforms his government has passed have earned international recognition, creating the necessary inroads for membership talks with the European Union from as early as 2005. Perhaps most significantly for Turkey's democracy, a ceasefire arranged through the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has brought genuine hope for a lasting political solution to Turkey's greatest domestic challenge.

Given these facts, the fractured nature of the opposition and the continuing loyalty of the bulk of the AK's core power base, it is unlikely that the protests will unseat Erdogan. Moreover, the army, which has a long and unfortunate history of removing those with whom it disagrees, has been effectively defanged, purged of those persons most likely to launch or support yet another coup. Combined with the prominence of Erdogan's supporters throughout administrative bodies, as well as their continued support from the business sector, means that the Prime Minister will likely remain in his office until the 2015 elections. Far from destabilising the regime, the recent turmoil could allow Erdogan to justify a stronger executive role for the President.

One of the most troubling repercussions of the recent protests may be their effect upon Turkey's bid for EU membership. The real losers here are the Turkish people, who will not be able to benefit from freer trade and closer relations with their neighbours, and the European Union, which could benefit from a young, dynamic market. Whatever its intentions, the international response will have succeeded in scrapping what could have been a key opportunity to strengthen ties between Turkey and the West. The AK will maintain its grip over Turkey, but within a very different international environment than existed before tents were erected in Gezi Park.

While support of mass social-media driven movements seems to have become all the rage, it is sometimes important to step back and observe the bigger picture. Turkey's geopolitical position should not be underestimated. But without the promise of EU membership, it is possible that Erdogan's trajectory will change considerably. What could have been an important ally in, for example, mitigating the damage caused by the Syrian civil war, will have become relatively alienated, unwilling to make the concessions it was previously ready to offer in its seeking of EU membership. One hope's that the international media representation of current anti-government protest in Brazil, Bulgaria and Egypt will give a more balanced view of the various opinions in those countries without giving the impression that the whole country is participating in an uprising.