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Gezi Park Protests: The Start of a 'Turkish Spring'?

10/06/2013 12:59 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

Once again a wave of protest has rippled through a leading Muslim country; one that many people have come to think of as tolerant, progressive and up-and-coming - a nice place for a holiday. And once again it seems to have taken almost everyone by complete surprise.

The world has become accustomed to hearing about Turkey's booming economy, its current peace process with Kurdish separatists and its moves to become a world player in international affairs. But now here we are - a public park in the middle of Istanbul has suddenly become the focal point for protests throughout the country, with activists defiant in the face of brutal force used by the police. In a state of shock, the government has been compelled to refute claims this is the start of a Turkish Spring, even if it's starting to look like it. So what is the reality?

In fact I do not believe that the events in Turkey over the last week are about setting the scene for a revolution, rather demanding a more advanced level of democracy. What we see unfolding is democracy in action, with even the President Abdullah Gul wading into the debate to support the protesters - no doubt to the immense displeasure of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Of course onlookers are justified in criticising the quality of democracy in Turkey for its lack of freedom of speech, jailing of journalists and denial of comprehensive labour rights. But the events of the last week are a living testament to the effectiveness of the EU-inspired reforms from 1999 to 2004, and also the AKP-led democratisation programme which followed after. Both of these improved the country's democratic credentials considerably. So much so, in fact, that the Turkish state may now be in the tragicomic position of suffering the effects of its own success.

The driving force behind the ongoing protests in Turkey is a fear that Prime Minister Erdogan is becoming less interested listening in to people outside of his own constituency. In the heady days following his last election victory, Erdogan promised to be a Prime Minister for all of the country, giving hope to secularists, liberals and Kurdish people for a more conciliatory form of politics. Today however, this seems less of a reality. Outside of his own circles, Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly perceived as being excessively confident, charged with dictating change rather than negotiating it with the public.

Paradoxically, the Gezi Park protests may provide a chance to clear the air about this disaffection. The prime minister's Office urgently needs to find better ways of communicating with the public. Most of all the Prime Minister needs to start rebuilding bridges with sceptics, who want to know that the government is not above listening to their concerns.

Moving from riots to a more advanced form of democracy is not going to be easy, but there are some clear steps to be taken. The Gezi Park protests show that there is no longer room for a closed-door approach to decision-making in Turkey. The public would like to be active participants in decisions that affect their day to day life, especially for matters at the local level, and the government will have to find better ways to consult them.

By the time the protests end the principle of public participation should have become a fait accompli, but the real test will lie in how well the government is able to make good on promises of consultation. The government also needs to become more sensitive to the fact that democracy, in its truest sense, is not just about majority rule. Advanced democracy is about talking with those who have a different perspective and finding ways out of problems that don't fall back on heavy-handedness and tear gas.

For their part, the people of Turkey also need to become more aware that politics is too serious to leave to politicians alone. If the public are to become more active in decision-making, then civil society groups will have to carve out much more of a role for themselves as interlocutors with government. Civil society groups will have to push for this, and they would benefit from the solidarity and support of honest friends. Prime Minister Erdogan has been adept at checking the power of the military in politics, which was long-overdue, but now if he is to avoid accusations of authoritarianism he must replace the military's waning political role with a civil society that has bite.

Even with its shortcomings, democracy in Turkey is of a very different ilk to that in pre-revolution Egypt or Libya. The protests have demostrated that Turkish people will not allow their government to stray too far from them. They are not protesting because there is a lack of democracy, they are protesting because they are in a democracy - and that is precisely what sets them apart from their brothers and sisters calling for revolution in the Arab Spring.