Turkey's Middle Class Fuels Protests

Protesters clash with riot police in Istanbul on June 1 Photograph by Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty Images

Municipal crews and volunteers spent Sunday cleaning debris on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, a major shopping lane lined with international clothing chains and Starbucks outlets. Two days of clashes between protesters and security services have turned the symbol of the country’s vast economic growth over the past decade into a battle zone.

As dusk fell on the city, thousands continued to rally in Taksim and along Istiklal, waving Turkish flags and chanting opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the third day of the biggest protests the country has seen since Erdoğan assumed power more than a decade ago. Residents near the demonstrations’ epicenter stood on their balconies banging on pots to show support for the movement.

What started as a small sit-in over government plans to bulldoze a park in Taksim to build a shopping mall mushroomed into a countrywide expression of discontent with Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). And the party may have only itself to blame.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey’s growth has skyrocketed. Per capita income, now more than $10,000, has nearly tripled, and the economy is the fastest-growing in Europe. Yet the AKP’s success in mending Turkey’s historically weak economy may be contributing to its current troubles. The new middle class is balking at Erdoğan’s governing style and how contentious programs are pushed through with little thought for public opposition.

“It seems to me that the AKP is the victim of its success,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, a foreign policy think tank. “In the past decade, the party’s economic policies have made Turkey a majority middle-class society. Now this middle class wants individual rights and takes issue with the Turkish ruling party’s understanding of democracy.” Adds Cagaptay: “The middle class that the AKP has built is telling the governing party, ‘Democracy is not just winning elections, it is also building consensus, so do not push projects down our throats. Talk to us and listen.’”

The shopping mall in Taksim is one of many unpopular building projects the AKP has undertaken in Istanbul as it remakes the face of the city with little effort at discussion. There’s also a plan to tear down a historic working-class neighborhood near the square and replace it with luxury apartments and an additional shopping mall.

The government continues to promote the construction of a new bridge between the Asian and European sides of the city that environmental groups say will destroy green space and worsen horrific traffic jams. The highhanded approach isn’t limited to new malls, either. Recently the AKP pushed through legislation that severely limits the sale of alcohol in the historically secular republic.

Erdoğan has made no secret of his desire to run for president when his term as prime minister expires next year. He retains vast public support, especially among the conservative rural population that has slowly migrated to the city, all but ensuring victory. Opposition to him is difficult, not least because the country’s domestic media are severely limited. Turkey has the most journalists in jail in the world.

But the demonstrations may complicate the AKP’s agenda. The number of protesters “suggest the birth of a new Turkey—a majority middle class that cherishes individual rights and the environment,” Cagaptay says. “Having become wealthy in the past decade, the people are now embracing a new attitude toward capitalism. They are telling the government, ‘We do not need shopping malls instead of parks.’”

Among the many well-dressed protesters filming the scene on their smartphones and tablets, Mehmet, a 49-year-old mechanical engineer, took issue with every part of the AKP agenda, from Erdoğan’s support of Syrian rebels to the recent show of police brutality, which injured hundreds over the past two days.

“Erdoğan is squeezing all the people,” Mehmet said. The destruction of the park “was the final drop that overloads the glass.” He’s skeptical of Turkey’s growth, echoing other protesters’ claims that the money doesn’t benefit everyone. “The economy isn’t that good. People still lose their jobs. With all these shopping centers planned, all of Turkey will be a shopping mall. What will Turks do with shopping malls? Malls don’t fill stomachs.”

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