A Quick Recollection of Turkey’s History Regarding Turkish Protests and their Causes

As the protests in Turkish metropolis Istanbul enters its fifth night, considering the general lack of information available in the world media I thought it would be illuminating to shed some light on the roots of the conflict, plus to share what I know about current situation as a third–party bystander.

While I will try to base statements on widely–known facts and cite in absence of such, this is only meant to be an informal accounting of events and facts. I do not imply any journalistic prowess, and my fact–checking is limited to what I can see with my two eyes. I do support people on the field, so while I try to remain neutral, my opinion might be inadvertently tinted that way. Caveat emptor.

What is Turkey?

15th largest economy in the world in terms of PPP, Turkey’s clout as one of the most well–developed economies within the newly–emerging countries is strong. With a population of eighty million and 12-15 million of it living in Istanbul, the largest city in Europe, rapid urbanisation of the country has resulted in both massive infrastructural improvements and equally massive purchasing power differences between differing sections of the Turkish society. With a GDP Per Capita of $19.000 Turkey is by any means not considered an impoverished country, but compared to the western European average of $35.000, its place is not one beside fully developed countries yet.

The most important thing here to understand is Turkey, sitting on the meeting point between Europe and Middle East, is far closer to the former than the latter—a fact the current islamist government appears not to be very tolerant of. A secular republic borne out of a disastrous World War One campaign which had finally killed off the long–suffering Ottoman Empire, the country has been traditionally wary of the religious rhetoric that was the hallmark of the Ottoman rule. Until AKP came, that is.

The recent past: Coming of age for the Nouveau Riche and their party, AKP

At the end of eighties the decision for Turkey to be a full–on free–market economy has been made (by Turgut Ozal, for what it’s worth), however the timing turned out to be quite unfortunate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crises extending outwards from it, much like the most of the developing economies Turkey entered into a vicious cycle of extreme inflation that was to last for the next ten years. Coupled with a series of ineffective centre–left governments, Turkish economy stayed alive by the way of a few, progressively harsher IMF stand–by agreements. Concluding with a bank run and collapse / consolidation of quite a few shallowly funded banks at the cost of significant loss of consumer capital and trust—at that point Turkey did not guarantee deposit accounts to any degree—Turkish economy entered the new millennium debt–stricken and massively overburdened.

At this point, the flailing liberal government, being at the verge of calling an early election, started to make deep structural changes to the economy out of desperation—and much to their chagrin they succeeded, albeit ten years later.

For them it wasn’t a happy story anyway. The economic policy changes made on the recommendation of imported advisers and IMF dragged the country into even deeper contraction. Early election they called on their own had all but eradicated any mention of the old guard, and there was a newcomer that has been publicly started to be known only a few months before the election that had swiftly taken over the polls—the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, Justice and Development Party, led by a convict of political speech, the old mayor of Istanbul.

The disenfranchised populace was eager to welcome them if just because that it was new; even the fact they hasn’t had their chance to screw up yet was at that point a distinct advantage compared to all the other parties participating in elections. The deeper undercurrent, however, is more interesting. At that point the political speech was the privilege of the secular elite; Turkish democracy being paradoxically protected by its Army which had intervened two times in the last thirty years to restore order and then swiftly leave the ground to civilians—a curiosity that happens consistently in Turkish history and almost never in any place else— had left the public space utterly unsuitable for any kind of religious rhetoric. Taking into consideration the fact that the country still possessing a large, semi–religious voter base that was a massive loss for the freedom of speech.

AKP entered the scene at the right time. The confidence in the economy and the political system was at an all–time low, and its base of religious masses had been enriched immensely by the free–market reforms and Thatcherian privatisation initiatives that had been going on for the last twenty years. It is not coincidental that then these two facts are still the two pillars of AKP’s value proposition: the first a strong economy, one which they might have produced with legitimate economic policy or could be taking credit unfairly for the drastic reforms that had taken place right before AKP came into power, and the second an idea of voice of the masses against the liberal elite. This latter idea also found many supporters in the liberal elite they were supposedly striving against, as a result, the flashy electoral victory of 2002 was not only a product of a new religious rich starting to exert its weight but also some significant parts of the traditional political heft leaning towards them.

Moving forwards, as the AKP’s voter base turned affluent, not merely rich, during the course of AKP control over the nation while the majority of the population stagnated, the AKP shred all notions of tolerance for liberalism—they did not like it, and at the point they lost their one single reason to tolerate, that is, liberals voting for them—at that point they had alienated virtually all liberals that once voted them in—they started to wage an all–out war. The most recent example is an alcohol ban that prevents the sale of alcohol products between 10pm-6am, forbids their advertisement and showing in public spaces. In the typical AKP fashion, the ban was introduced, discussed, and made into law in about a week without any input from the opposition because of the Turkish parliamentary system massively favouring single–party rule.

However it should be noted that the AKP rule was not entirely devoid of any advances: the eclipse of the Army’s influence from the political scene, a strong and consistently performing economy (regardless of the reason) and freedoms given, however only on the subjects that seem to matter to their own populace such as the headscarf–wearers being allowed into universities marked the last ten years.

Why aren’t these people founding a party and fight for their rights in the parliament? Turkey is a democracy, after all.

The default method of dissent does not work in this case because of a quirk in Turkish electoral system: the cut–off. Turkish parliamentary system has 9% cut-off; what that implies is that if a party receives any less than 9% of the votes in the national polls, the party loses all rights to representation, i.e. anything receiving less than 9% of the national vote cannot be represented in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. It sounds horrific enough as it is, but let’s use the results from the first election AKP came into power. Here are the full results

As you can see, AKP received 34%, CHP 19%, DYP 9.4%. It’s a long tail distribution from then on, all of them losing their right to representation. Their cumulative vote, the void votes, got distributed proportionately onto the three parties that go past the cut–off. The percentage sum of the parties above cut–off being 62%, it therefore meant 38% of eligible Turkish citizens, many of them from minority parties, Kurds, socialists, i.e. dissenters, have had lost their right to be represented in the National Assembly.

The missing 38% is then divvied up according to the ratio in–between to parties that go over the cut–off. So the electorate not only lose their democratic will, but also end up voting for their perhaps worst rivals.

There are a few consequences to this system. The most apparent one is that it forces people to pick their least–bad choice from the parties who are very likely to go over the cut–off, forcing people to vote who they can at least stomach. Else they end up voting for the worst possible one also, in case their best–choice cannot survive the cut–off. Which also happens to be quite likely in new, up–and–coming movements.

The second is that it’s very heavily incentivising status quo, in forcing people to vote for a majority party who they do not seem best fit. It essentially reduces the flavours of the democratic ice cream to two: vanilla and chocolate— nothing in–between.

The third, and the most insidious is that it’s designed to actually remove players from the political scene— it’s all or nothing, and the bar to cross is extremely high. For new players failing to survive the cut–off kills the entire movement in its tracks, and for established parties, as they get unpopular enough to fall below the cut–off, they rarely recover. The intended result, as far as can be seen, is to create a two–party system with one majority, and one opposition, which is toxic, because after the majority party having their own votes, and the proportionate share of void votes, it almost always reaches a constitutional super–majority which renders the opposition completely irrelevant. This is the current situation with AKP in the Turkish Republic.

The system, originally designed to suppress the minority vote in a very fragmented country, have had and still has causing a massive damage to the efficiency of Turkish democracy since its inception.

Current spread of the protests

While the most bloody clashes happened in the cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Eskisehir, almost all of the major metropoles in Turkey have had protests, most of them dispersing peacefully. The cities are mapped below.

While it is too early to give a guess on the number of participants, the largest protest continues in Istanbul, Ankara being a close second. Izmir protests has met a very violent crackdown.

Other resources to follow

The Turkish protests’ pictures are collected on this tumblr page: http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com/

This is another visual repository with more videos: http://delilimvar.tumblr.com/

The New York Times and The Guardian are also sporadically covering the events.

This is a short video compilation, of the first week of the Protests, also narrated in English. Link

This is an excerpt from a live stream that took place on Jun 3, 2013 from Inonu, a football stadium standing right between Taksim and Besiktas. Link


I have separated the Liveblog from the article in hopes that it reduces the confusion about recency of the events. The liveblog is updated as soon as events are confirmed. You can find it here.