Editorial: Young Turks right to fight for democracy

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Turkish riot police launched round after round of tear gas against protesters in Istanbul. Photo / AP
Turkish riot police launched round after round of tear gas against protesters in Istanbul. Photo / AP

For 90 years, the modern secular state forged by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire has, by and large, served Turkey well. The union of democracy and Islam has endured, so much so that Turkey was held up as an example for countries emerging from the Arab Spring. But the validity of that template is now under serious threat thanks to the violent repression of peaceful anti-Government demonstrations across the country.

As is often the case when tensions run deep, the protests were sparked by a relatively minor event. A peaceful sit-in against plans to uproot the last piece of greenery in Istanbul's Taksim Square was transformed by a pre-dawn raid by the Turkish police. Angry young Turks saw this as symbolising all that is wrong with the Government.

In particular, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is said to have stopped listening to the Turkish people. What was generally considered a moderate Islamic Government has passed a series of laws with minimal debate, the most recent of which banned the sale of liquor between 10pm and 6am and near mosques.

Many secular Turks saw this as further evidence of the imposition of religious conservatism on their lives.

They have good reason to question Mr Erdogan's agenda. The Prime Minister gained power in 2003 and has since reaped the rewards of economic prosperity. Two further elections have been won in landslides. This success and the lack of any cogent political opposition to his Justice and Development Party has emboldened him to adopt a more authoritarian line. Part of this is a plan to modify the constitution, handing far more power to the President. It is no coincidence that, having hit his three-term limit as Prime Minister, he plans to run for that very spot next year.

His likely opponent will be the current President, Abdullah Gul. Notably, he has praised the protesters as expressing their democratic rights. He is absolutely correct and given the transparency of Mr Erdogan's plans to monopolise power, both Mr Gul and the demonstrators warrant praise. The latter, in particular, have had to show purposefulness and restraint in equal measure. It is unclear, however, whether they speak mainly for young Turks, while their elders are largely satisfied with Mr Erdogan's conservative policies and the lifting of Turkey's profile internationally, and would happily vote for him again.

But the protests must have undermined the Prime Minister to some degree. When he called the demonstrators "extremists" and "a bunch of looters", he was using language more commonly associated with authoritarian leaders. Already, this penchant had been underlined by his cowing of the media and the imprisoning of activists on trumped-up charges. Secular Turks have every reason to fear an increasingly oppressive atmosphere as an increasingly powerful Mr Erdogan forces more of his policies on them.

The protests are a warning that such social and cultural change will not go unchallenged, even if Mr Erdogan continues to dominate at the ballot-box. The lack of a strong political opposition leaves young secular Turks with no option. Their protests suggest, if nothing else, that the democratic impulse is finally embedded in Turkey. That, in turn, considerably lessens the likelihood of another military coup.

Some of the protesters are now summoning up the revered spirit of Ataturk. It was, after all, his secular vision that laid the foundation for one of the success stories of the 20th Century.

The protesters in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir want Turkey to continue down that liberated path. They are unlikely to bring down Mr Erdogan. But he now knows they will not relinquish their freedoms to his authoritarian bent without a struggle.

- NZ Herald

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