Has Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally worn out his welcome?
The anti-government protests that began last Friday in Taksim Square against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership could become the start of a “Turkish Spring.” At the very least, if Erdogan does not implement serious reforms and address the widespread and legitimate grievances of secular and liberal groups in Turkey, he and his political party, the Justice and Development Party, will face growing political opposition.
Hindering the freedom of assembly and using excessive force against protestors are unacceptable actions in a modern democracy, but these abuses are the tip of the iceberg of democratic abuses by Erdogan’s government. Concerns over Erdogan’s leadership have been mounting for some time: Heritage’s Ariel Cohen pointed out during the 2010 constitutional referendum in Turkey that Erdogan “cannot talk about democratization while centralizing political power, clamping down on the media, and preparing to change the secular constitution.”
Yet these protests could create a political opening for Erdogan to actually listen to what the Turkish electorate—not just to those in the majority that voted for him—envisions for Turkey’s future.
Not only does Erdogan need to address the initial grievances for the protests regarding urban development, cronyism, and limiting alcohol sales; he should also rethink the increasingly authoritarian reflexes that led him to dismiss his critics and clamp down on independent Turkish media.
Erdogan’s government continues to struggle with guaranteeing freedom of the press and the sound protection of minority rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Turkey as one of “the world’s worst jailers of the press” alongside China and Iran. While Erdogan has made progress in addressing the concerns of the Kurdish minority, he has failed to assuage secular and liberal groups in the country, which worry that Turkey is replacing secular traditions with Islamic customs, creating a new Turkish identity that does not embrace Turkey’s diverse history and culture.
It is undeniable that Turkey has become a rising star on the global stage under the leadership of Erdogan. Turkey is home to the world’s 17th-largest economy, including a diverse array manufacturing industries. Turkey uniquely holds strong political capital in the Islamic world as well as deep historical ties to the European continent, but Erdogan should clean his undemocratic laundry—not just for his own legacy’s sake but for the future of Turkey.
Erdogan has an opportunity to self-correct and live by the democratic principles he has declared to so many of the Arab Spring’s supporters. Taksim Square should become the symbol for the preservation and enforcement of democratic principles, the rule of law, and toleration of dissent in a region that too often lacks them.