The protests that have exploded in Istanbul’s Taksim Square can only be understood by seeing the pressures on Turkey’s rulers that pull them in different directions
The day the mass protests began in Turkey, the economist Jeffrey Sachs had published an article praising the country’s economic miracle.
He said, “The economy grew by 5 percent per year on average from 2002 to 2012. It has remained at peace, despite regional wars. Its banks avoided the boom-bust cycle of the past decade...
“The government has won three consecutive general elections, each time with a greater share of the popular vote.”
But deeper tensions were developing below the surface.
Turkey’s ruling class has always been torn between trying to emulate western Europe and trying to build economic connections with the Middle East.
The republic was founded in 1923 out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, which was finally torn apart by the First World War.
Its rulers developed a doctrine they called Kemalism after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was president from the new states foundation until his death in 1938.
Turkey had been at the heart of a declining empire that once dominated the Middle East and saw itself as the guardian of Islamic tradition.
The Kemalists sought to build a modern capitalist nation, modelled on the European powers. It would be secular, with religion frowned upon. They used the dictatorial power of the state to build the economy and industrialise.
Their nationalist ideology involved the repression of minorities such as the Kurds, who make up 20 percent of the population, or the Armenians who had been brutally crushed.
The vast majority of the population were Muslim, and particularly in the rural areas, sceptical of secularism.
The country’s initial free elections in 1950 brought in the first in a series of centre-right governments. These largely maintained Kemalist policies but softened their approach to Islam, which helped them gain votes among the mostly rural electorate.
This government also took Turkey into Nato, establishing itself as a key ally of the US during the Cold War.
Turkey rapidly urbanised in the post-war period. Istanbul alone grew from a city of one million in 1950 to a population probably approaching 20 million today, with millions forced into shanty towns.
The Kemalists’ industrialisation had created a powerful working class, which grew in militancy and confidence.
Periods of democracy were regularly interrupted by the army, which saw its role as the guarantor of the secular Kemalist state against perceived threats from rival political movements.
A brutal dictatorship from 1980 to 1983 saw the repression of socialists and the workers’ movements. The left was pushed back and many of its best activists driven into exile.
The dictatorship also paved the way for a turn towards privatisation and export production for global markets. This helped to create a new “Islamic bourgeoisie” based in small and medium businesses in cities of the conservative heartlands, rather than the Westernised coastal areas around Istanbul.
New export-orientated industries such as textiles grew up, focused on producing goods for Europe and, more recently, the Middle East and North Africa. There was also expansion in fields such as construction and the provision of “Islamic finance”.
From this period the main political opposition in Turkey came from Islamist movements.
Islamic networks grew up in the cities offering welfare, education and a sense of community to newly arrived migrants from rural areas.
Along with the new Islamic bourgeoisie and voters in rural areas, Islamist movements could draw on the support of these urban networks. Islamism in Turkey is a modern and largely urban development.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which now rules Turkey, emerged when a group of modernisers, including current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, led a split from an existing Islamic party.
The AKP embraced neoliberalism, dropped much of its anti-Western rhetoric and put forward membership of the EU as one of its central policies.
It won a majority in elections held in 2002 in the wake of a succession of economic crises. It has also benefitted from
widespread contempt for the corruption of the existing political elite.
The rise of the AKP has seen clashes between the new Islamic bourgeoisie and older sections of the capitalist class.
The main political opposition to the AKP comes from the Kemalist CHP, with about 20 percent of the vote. It draws support from middle class and upper class voters in wealthier areas of the cities and the coastal regions of Turkey.
In the background lurks the army, which has made thinly veiled coup threats against the AKP in the past. Erdogan has, so far at least, succeeding in marginalising in the army political life.
Recently Erdogan distanced himself from some liberals who had previously supported the AKP in its clashes with the military or tolerated the AKP during the economic boom.
In addition Erdogan has brokered a peace deal with the Kurdish PKK, which led an armed struggle against Turkish repression since 1984. This has incurred the wrath of nationalists and the army—though three quarters of the population back the peace process.
Cracks at the top of society can help to feed revolt from below, particularly when there is growing discontent among those at the bottom of society.
The Turkish boom relied on exceptionally high levels of exploitation of workers. Profits surged upwards in the years after 2002, but this was based largely on the repression of wages and long working hours.
There has been a massive expansion in gruelling informal work, with two thirds of the labour force now in workplaces with fewer than ten employees.
Turkey has become one of the most unequal among the major capitalist countries. Since the global economic crisis broke, the Turkish economy has slowed sharply, with the government unleashing a huge credit boom to try to keep up demand.
Despite these pressures, Erdogan remained hugely popular until last week. In part this is because many Turkish people do feel better off than in the past, quite unlike the situation in, say, Greece or Spain.
People also feel that the military has been pushed back. And a large section of the population are overjoyed that they can be openly Muslim without suffering for it.
There was nonetheless enough bitterness for mass demonstrations to explode when police attacked a tiny protest against the redevelopment of Gezi Park. On 2 June there were reports of 200 protests in 97 towns and cities.
The movement began spontaneously and mobilised many different sections of the population.
For many Western commentators it reflects anger against the “Islamisation” of Turkey by the AKP. For example, there are new restrictions on the public sale of alcohol—although the laws are barely harsher than in many European countries.
But more important is the wider discontent in society, even among those who identify thamselves as devout Muslims.
Different political forces are now trying to influence the movement. The Kemalist CHP, and supporters of the right wing nationalist MHP, have been present on the demonstrations, though they do not go unchallenged.
Recent protests have seen the presence of Kurdish protesters, another important development.
One shift that could help to give the struggle a wider social base to challenge the government would be the mass involvement of workers.
Unfortunately, the unions are in a weakened state and have been extremely passive in recent years. The only exception was a major strike against privatisation of the state telecom company in 2009-10.
Last week one public sector union confederation, KESK, turned a planned strike by workers against attacks on union rights into a two-day protest strike against the AKP’s attacks on Gezi Park. But most organised workers are not involved.
The leaderships of the various rival union confederations are in some cases passive because they have cosy relations with the state and employers.
In other cases, they echo the Kemalist rhetoric of Erdogan being a “reactionary Muslim”, which cuts them off from many Muslim workers.
Islamist confederations have been growing recently, but these vacillate between concern for workers and loyalty to the AKP.
It will take an experience of struggle by workers to begin to resolve these problems and give workers the confidence to challenge their union leaders.