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The revolt of the rising class

For the long-term stability of Turkey, it would be good to have a robust political opposition, writes Bill Keller for the New York Times.

india Updated: Jul 01, 2013 22:34 IST

What is happening in Turkey is not Les Miserables, or the Arab Spring. It is not an uprising born in desperation. It is a revolt arising from the urban, educated haves who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject.

We saw early versions of it in China in 1989, Venezuela in 2002. We saw it in Iran in 2009, when the cosmopolitan crowds thronged in protest against theocratic hard-liners. We saw it in Russia in 2011, when legions of 30-somethings spilled out of their office cubicles, chanting their scorn for the high-handed rule of Vladimir Putin. While Turkey was still percolating, the discontent bubbled up in Brazil, where yet another ruling party seems to be a victim of its own success.

The vanguard in each case is mostly young, students or relative newcomers to the white-collar workforce who have outgrown the fearful conformity of their parents’ generation. With their economic wants more or less satisfied, they now crave a voice, and respect. In this social-media century, they are mobilised largely by Facebook and Twitter, circumventing an intimidated mainstream press.

Because these protesters are by definition people with something to lose — and because the autocrats know it — the uprisings are beaten into submission, at least for the short-term. The authorities kid themselves that they have solved the problem. But it will not. There is a new alienation, a new yearning, and this energy will find an outlet.

The protesters in these middle-class revolts tend to be political orphans, leaderless, party-less, not particularly ideological. To reach a new equilibrium, either the rising class must get organised, or the ruling class must get the message, or, ideally, both.

In China, Iran and Russia, where the regimes are more established in their ruthlessness, the discontented may have a longer wait. But watch Turkey. How Turkey, as a partner in Nato and a bridge to the tumultuous Islamic world, finds its new balance has both practical and symbolic significance for the rest of the world.

The US has long embraced Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the model of a modern Muslim reformer. But those days of skirmishing have opened many eyes to Erdogan’s intemperate and intolerant side — his tone-deafness, his tendency to regard any criticism as a grave insult, his conspiracy theories.

The surprise is that Erdogan’s darker instincts came as a surprise to anyone. Human rights organisations have long lamented the fact that Turkey, while it has a lively press, also has more journalists in jail than any other country on earth.

With the important exception of police brutality, Erdogan’s affronts have been matters of speech and style rather than action. He has talked of outlawing abortion, but he hasn’t tried to do it. He has described Twitter as “the worst menace to society” and suggested clamping down on social media, but he seems unlikely to have much success there even if he tries. He has conjured a dark conspiracy of secular subversives, bankers and Western media, but that is vintage Erdogan, and vintage Turkey — a country of intrigues that exemplifies the old line: even paranoids have enemies.

So the fact that the rising class has chosen this moment to run out of patience seems to be Erdogan’s bad luck. It may also be Turkey’s good fortune.

One possible outcome is that those unhappy with Erdogan will find an avenue into politics, and give Erdogan the challenge he deserves. The Turkish system favours incumbency and makes it hard to form viable new parties, even if Erdogan’s foes could agree on what they are for.

For the long-term stability of Turkey, it would be good to have a robust political opposition advocating pluralism. In the meantime, it may be up to Erdogan to save Turkey from himself.

New York Times News Service