Turkey’s heated summer is a political weather formation markedly different from the Arab Spring to which it is mistakenly being compared. The protests in Istanbul and some of the larger cities along the western coast represent the greatest political challenge for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan but will not lead to the overthrow of the Turkish polity. Erdogan’s attempts to ensure the protests do not degenerate into violence are designed to ensure his government will not face a legitimacy problem over law and order. It also ensures that his government retains the support of the smaller cities and rural population that elected him to office a decade ago, a support base that continues to back him and which is why he is unlikely to be toppled.
The real question is how much the protests will force Erdogan to change his policies. Some of these have undermined Turkey’s ambitions to be a political model for the Muslim world, including an increasingly heavy hand against dissidents and the media. On the other hand, Erdogan’s attempt to seek a solution to the country’s Kurdish minority problem is a brave move worthy of emulation. And his party’s decision to drop advocacy of the Sharia was revolutionary. What the protests will undermine is the overweening sense of destiny that had become evident with Ankara in recent years. Erdogan had begun manoeuvring to recast the constitution and make himself an all-powerful president. He had planned giant construction projects and had positioned his country as a major player in other parts of the world like Central Asia.
The circumstances that had given Turkey the ability to think so big have been ebbing rapidly. The global financial crisis have moderated the country’s economic boom run. Most damaging has been the Syrian civil war. Ankara, originally a supporter of the Al-Assad government, gambled that it made sense to support the rebels, which it saw as the side most likely to win. Instead the war has now infected Turkey’s southern border. The protests are about a popular demand that Turkey the Ambitious needs to scale down, at least until circumstances change for the better. It is not clear, however, that Erdogan’s own ego will allow that to happen.