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Kevin Bayona: Things heat up in Turkey

Posted: June 13, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 13, 2013 2:00 a.m.

When the Arab Spring erupted back in December of 2010, I never thought the revolutions and protests we witnessed on our television screens would reach Turkey, considered by many to be a democratic anchor of stability in an otherwise un-democratic and unstable part of the world.

Although, as I watch events unfold in Istanbul and Ankara, I can’t help but think the Arab Spring has absolutely nothing to do with what is actually happening in Turkey.

The reasons behind the violence in Turkey are varied and misunderstood by many, so let me try to explain what I think is happening.

The protests began on May 28 in Gezi Park inside Taksim Square, where a group of about 50 environmentalists began to protest the proposed demolition of the park to rebuild the Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks, which would house a shopping mall.

The environmentalists argue such a development runs contrary to green space protection laws.

The protesters were evicted by the police on the very same day using tear gas and water cannons.

The apparent heavy-handed tactics used by police triggered other protests across the country, now in the name of various political causes concerning freedom of speech, Islamic encroachment of Turkish secularization, freedom of assembly and curbs on alcohol.

Like the "Occupy" protests that erupted across the United States recently, protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square set up a tent city after returning when police left on June 1.

Also like "Occupy," the demonstrators are disorganized and lack any real leadership.

So what we have in Turkey is a mosaic of political protestation across the country that, if observed from high above, would reveal an angry Turk who represents both left-wing and right-wing concerns, and who fervently opposes Turkish Prime Minister Ricep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration.

What you won’t see is any real threat to the long-term stability of the Turkish state.

The other thing, which isn’t as obvious to the casual observer of events in Turkey, is that Prime Minister Erdogan has strong support from about 50 percent of the electorate, most of whom hail from rural parts of Turkey and some of the smaller cities.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has been in power since it was elected in 2002 and has continued to win in several election over the last 10 years.

Prime Minister Erdogan is essentially a conservative who has close ties to the business community, subscribes to Islamic religious values, and endorses strong national security measures.

This may sound frightening given the nature of most Middle Eastern states, but I would urge Americans to accept what is happening in Turkey as they would any protests or demonstrations in the United States.

Turkey’s long history of democracy and secular values are so imbedded in the national culture that any shocks to the system will almost certainly be absorbed by it.

Although a formidable challenger to the Justice and Development Party does not currently exist, one will emerge over time, and Turkey’s democratic process will unfold and offer compromise and change for those who feel unrepresented and unheard.

In the meantime, Erdogan should allow local authorities to deal with the various demonstrations while he tackles more serious concerns like the uneasiness felt by many foreign investors.

Also, Turkey remains a provisional member of the European Union and I will assume Brussels is watching closely to see how events unfold and how the Turkish government handles those events.

I admire Turkey and I am hopeful that it will continue to be the standard-bearer of stability in the Middle East and a Western/Eastern fusion of democratic strength, which serves as a much-needed bridge linking Europe and Asia.

So no, the Arab Spring has not come to Turkey (for one, Turks are not Arabs, so the term wouldn’t even apply), but it may be one hot summer to come.

Kevin Bayona is a Valencia resident. He earned a BA in international relations and political science from Fairfield University, studied global affairs at New York University, and is a member of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.


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