THE BLOG

Turkey: Democracy on Trial

10/06/2013 11:31 BST | Updated 06/08/2013 10:12 BST

There is no bigger test for a democracy than when the voters are split down the middle. Turkey is the latest country to face that test -- and it's failing.

Street protests are an essential part of a democracy. Violent police suppression of those protests -- and the arrests of anyone who voices opposition to the government -- definitely is not.

In the last Turkish general election almost exactly two years ago, the AK party of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a smidgen under 50 per cent of the vote. Less than a month later, in Thailand, the Pheu Thai Party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra) won a similar proportion of the vote (48.41 per cent compared to the AKP's 49.83 per cent).

Why do I mention Thailand? Ah, what short memories we have. Have you already forgotten the red shirts and yellow shirts who brought Bangkok to its knees and threatened lasting damage to the Thai economy between 2006 and 2011? And the more I think about it, the more parallels I see between the Thai tensions then and the Turkish tensions now.

So let's put to one side those facile and misleading comparisons between Taksim Square (Istanbul) 2013 and Tahrir Square (Cairo) 2011. The anti-government protests that have swept through Turkey over the past week are not a "Turkish spring", but they are -- perhaps -- a Turkish equivalent to the Thai yellow shirt movement.

Here are some of the parallels -- none of them exact, to be sure, but political parallels, unlike mathematical ones, never are. Anti-government protesters in Turkey: largely middle-class, urban, educated, suspicious of the government's democratic credentials. Yellow shirts in Thailand: ditto. According to an excellent background analysis by the International Crisis Group: "The bulk of the protestors thronging Istanbul's central streets by day are middle-class, often spurred into action by social media networks. Many of them hold regular jobs, including bankers, lawyers, academics and other private-sector personnel. Women are notably numerous ..."

On the other side of the divide are the AKP's supporters: mainly rural, more conservative, ignored in the past by the country's traditional ruling elite. Pro-Shinawatra red shirts in Thailand: ditto.

But perhaps the Thailand parallel seems a bit remote. How about something closer to home: how about the huge pro-fox hunting demonstration in London back in 2002, when an estimated 400,000 people took to the streets? They were, you may remember, mainly rural protesters bitterly angry that mainly urban policy-makers were simply ignoring their long-cherished cultural traditions.

Or, a bit further back in history, the poll tax riots in 1990, when an estimated 200,000 protesters demonstrated their fury at a tax imposed by the Thatcher government that they believed represented only the interests of the wealthy and the privileged?

Or, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street protest, when demonstrators in New York -- and many others in many other capital cities around the world -- voiced their anger at banking malpractice and social and economic inequality.

What they all had in common -- and what set them apart from the Arab Spring protests -- was that they all took place in democracies. What they represented -- and what the Turkish protests represent -- was the anger of voters who blame the politicians in power for ignoring their interests. They should be seen, I would suggest, as a manifestation of the obvious truth that parliamentary politics alone do not always provide an adequate forum for the exchange of ideas and the expression of opposition to government policy.

Let's not forget that freedom of speech and freedom of association are two fundamental human rights, as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights adopted in 1948. Article 19 says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." And article 20: "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association."

So mass demonstrations, even angry ones, are not a sign that democracy is failing. Where concern is justified is when the party in power fails to recognise that protesters may have a legitimate grievance, or when the police use unreasonable force to end the protests.

That's why the government response to the protests in Turkey is far more worrying than the protests themselves. It's not surprising that secular, urban Turks are suspicious of what they see as the creeping Islamisation of their country, and of a steady move towards a more authoritarian style of government. (On Wednesday, the police arrested 25 people accused of using Twitter and other social media to "stoke anti-government sentiment". And this is a country that wants to be seriously considered as a candidate to join the EU.)

Turkey has a long-established traditional political elite, grounded in the secular principles of the modern state's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan a decade ago, the members of that elite have found themselves steadily pushed further from the levers of power, and they don't much like it.

Nor did the conservative royalists in Thailand, who were ousted by the rural supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra -- or even, arguably, the rural, fox-hunting Conservative voters of England after the election of Tony Blair in 1997.

So here's a thought for you: maybe the protesters on the streets of Turkey's towns and cities are the minority -- the ones who, admittedly by the slimmest of margins, have lost the last three elections. Their protests may be well be justified -- there is no doubt that Erdogan's instincts are not those of a liberal, and his crushing of the independent media does not mark him out as a convinced democrat. But, for better or worse, the ruling AKP still commands the support of a great many Turks who credit it with a decade of economic growth and rising living standards.

The AKP's critics have every right to protest against the government, and most importantly, to do so without being bludgeoned or tear-gassed by the police. What's more, Mr Erdogan should remind himself that only half the country voted for him, and that he needs to respect the rights of those who didn't.