It takes courage to build democracy

Reflec­tions on events in Turkey by Chris­tine Hübner. 

It’s been two years now that I was in Istan­bul for the first time. I arrived on an evening flight and took a bus into the city. The bus dri­ver dropped us off right at Tak­sim square and I remem­ber how amazed I was at the hap­py sight. Despite the late hour the square and the neigh­bour­ing Istik­lal, Istanbul’s main shop­ping mile were packed with peo­ple doing their shop­ping, eat­ing ice cream or just enjoy­ing an after work drink.

Today, I get shiv­ers when I see my Turk­ish friends’ and acquain­tances’ pic­tures of Tak­sim square on Face­book and Twit­ter. It does not quite fit the hap­py mem­o­ry I rec­ol­lect. With­in less than 2 days, what start­ed as a sim­ple sit-in to protest against the rede­vel­op­ment of Gezi Park in cen­tral Istan­bul devel­oped into a full-scale civ­il protest against recent gov­ern­ment deci­sions such as on restrain­ing alco­hol sales, prime min­is­ter Erdoğan’s increas­ing­ly author­i­tar­i­an style of gov­ern­ment, and the per­ceived creep­ing islami­sa­tion of Turk­ish politics.

Judg­ing by my Face­book and Twit­ter feeds the upris­ing seems to mas­sive – just as mas­sive as police vio­lence to calm the sit­u­a­tion. As Turk­ish media is banned to report on the protests, the social media hype around it grows only larg­er. While in the Arab Spring two years ago, pro­test­ers used social media most­ly to com­mu­ni­cate and orga­nize, my Turk­ish friends also make use of their far-reach­ing Web 2.0‑networks to host a clear mes­sage: spread the news in Europe, spread it in the US, and every­where! From the result­ing report­ing – even on Reuters or the BBC – I find it dif­fi­cult to judge how large and unit­ed the group of pro­test­ers in Turkey real­ly stands.

Aer­i­al view of Tak­sim square this week­end / #Occu­pyGeziPics


Prime min­is­ter Erdoğan said about the protests: “All attempts apart from the bal­lot box are not demo­c­ra­t­ic.” Accord­ing to the BBC, he even added he could sum­mon a mil­lion pro-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers if he want­ed to. No mat­ter how pop­ulist this sounds, he rais­es an issue with his state­ment: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Turkey’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian and is often described as Turkey’s strongest leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His AK par­ty has won three con­sec­u­tive gen­er­al elec­tions, each time receiv­ing more votes than in the pre­vi­ous elec­tion. In the lat­est one in 2011, the AK reached almost 50% of the pop­u­lar vote. Even if all pro­test­ers weren’t vot­ing for him, 21 mil­lion oth­er Turk­ish vot­ers must have done so.

Elec­tion Results – Gen­er­al elec­tions Turkey 2002, 2007, and 2011

Elec­tion date Par­ty leader Votes received Per­cent­age of votes No. of deputies
Novem­ber 3, 2002 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 10,763,904 34.26% 363
July 22, 2007 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 16,327,291 46.58% 341
June 12, 2011 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 21,442,206 49.83% 326

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in his state­ment Mr Erdoğan con­fus­es the mere mech­a­nisms of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy with democ­ra­cy as a con­cept. No mat­ter whether at the bal­lot box or in between gen­er­al elec­tions — democ­ra­cy is a form of gov­ern­ment in which cit­i­zens have an equal say in the deci­sions that affect their lives and come togeth­er to make these deci­sions. To me the protests in Turkey show once more that build­ing this kind of democ­ra­cy takes a lot of courage – more courage than to just set up reg­u­lar elec­tions. Cast­ing a vote every so many years in an anony­mous elec­tion is one thing. Speak­ing to oth­ers about mutu­al as well as diverg­ing needs and wish­es, stand­ing up for own val­ues, hav­ing an opin­ion, and lis­ten­ing to those who have anoth­er one – is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent thing.

For democ­ra­cy to suc­ceed it takes a strong civ­il soci­ety that is allowed and able to voice an opin­ion. It also takes a polit­i­cal elite that has learnt to lis­ten to its cit­i­zens. Author and activist Park­er J. Palmer writes that “Democ­ra­cy is a non-stop exper­i­ment in the strengths and weak­ness­es of our polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions, local com­mu­ni­ties, and the human heart—and its out­come can nev­er be tak­en for grant­ed.” Let alone how they do it — the Turk­ish pro­test­ers are show­ing that they earned the courage to let their opin­ion be known. Mr Erdoğan’s and the police reac­tion indi­cate how much courage the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment have yet to earn to embrace civic protest as a chance to build a legit­i­mate democracy.

In an ide­al world, there would have been empa­thy and dia­logue between activists and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. The dif­fer­ent opin­ions around rede­vel­op­ing Gezi Park would have been brought to the table on a local lev­el to not let this one issue blow up into nation-wide hodge-podge of frus­tra­tions and vio­lence. There would be round­table dis­cus­sions to exchange the dif­fer­ent view­points of cit­i­zens and politi­cians and Istanbul’s inhab­i­tants would have been able to express what they want to make out of Gezi Park at a much ear­li­er stage.

Although the chances for this kind of dia­logue are long gone, with a lit­tle courage and empa­thy the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment and cit­i­zens can still get togeth­er around one table to draw on this upris­ing as a chance for build­ing stronger ties between civ­il soci­ety and pol­i­tics. Protests lead­ing to a strength­ened civ­il soci­ety, maybe even a new polit­i­cal stream — we have seen this hap­pen before. I am not sure if the time is right for this kind of demo­c­ra­t­ic rede­vel­op­ment in ide­al terms, but I have the feel­ing that there are peo­ple in Turkey and all over Europe who are begin­ning to under­stand what it takes.

Chris­tine Hüb­n­er is a part­ner at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

Pic­ture: #Occu­pyGeziPics

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