Turkey’s “silent” majority

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov
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In the background of the ongoing anti-government protests in Turkey looms the shadow of the increasingly united fans of Turkey’s embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ruling a country of angry seculars and disappointed liberals will be painful and messy for Mr. Erdogan from now on, but he can be assured of the popular support he enjoys among mostly conservative people in Turkey. Long a byword for poorly educated people and reactionary masses, conservative people that make up core of Mr. Erdogan’s supporters are calling themselves the “silent majority” and watched with utter patience as tens of thousands of Turks flocked to streets last week to protest the way the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rules the country.

Mr. Erdogan’s insistence to go ahead with a plan to rebuild the copy of an Ottoman-era barrack had provided an important spur for a modest environmental protest in Taksim’s Gezi Park in central Istanbul to morph into nationwide upheaval. Turkish authorities had bungled their first attempt to disperse the small crowd by using excessive force. Subsequent chaos followed the authorities’ incompetence in managing the crisis. And then the violence blew like a deadly wind for the government.

The Taksim crisis found a ready echo in places like the capital Ankara and Western city of Izmir, where staunchly secular youth clashed with police. The Turkish protests are unprecedented in character, with the angry public protesting wherever they are by honking cars in roads and banging pots at home.

Mr. Erdogan’s latest policies reflect a vision in which he arrogates to himself the role of setting standards, determining who gets what, when and why

Mahir Zeynalov

Some of the most scathing criticism has come not from Mr. Erdogan’s conventional opposition but from anguished liberals and conservatives. On Tuesday, a well-known Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen urged the government to take protests seriously. Two things you can start but can’t sometimes stop, Mr. Gülen said, fire and war. “And this is no different from fire,” Gülen warned.

Mr. Erdogan’s latest policies reflect a vision in which he arrogates to himself the role of setting standards, determining who gets what, when and why. He shrugged off the demands of the protesters, further justifying the anger of public who claim Mr. Erdogan is increasingly indifferent to people’s desires and becoming more intrusive into people’s lifestyles.

Meanwhile, as protests spreading across the country, the situation in Turkey appears to be heading towards an even rougher patch. If the unrest continues for some time to come, it will lead Turkey in a more hostile and divided situation.

Mr. Erdogan is still Turkey’s most popular and powerful leader, but maybe a little smarter having learned from the unceasing protests that challenged his unquestionable authority. Far more significantly, he has learned that insisting on an unpopular policy, without a good reason, is a sure path to a room full of trouble.

Mellowing his tone

In a marked departure from the rhetoric he used before, Mr. Erdogan slightly mellowed his tone on Thursday but still insisted that the protesters were using “destroy and burn” tactics. The fact that he blundered into a bad policy in the beginning doesn’t mean that we should eschew good policy now.

Although bruised and damaged by days of protests, Mr. Erdogan is still representing nearly half of the country, who are staying “silent” at the request of the prime minister. The extraordinary nature of protests in Turkey falsely portrayed most Turks as disliking the prime minister and the international media’s record in this image is by no means guilt-free. A recent poll by Pew Research Center showed that Mr. Erdogan is very popular in Turkey, with 62 percent of Turks having a favorable view of him, while 34% viewed him unfavorably.

While thousands of people joined the protests in the streets, Turkey’s large “silent majority” were using social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to campaign for Mr. Erdogan and discredit the protests.

Remarks by Mr. Erdogan earlier this week, stating that he has “difficulty to contain 50 percent of this nation,” have sparked widespread outrage in Turkey, with many branding the statement as a threat. But Mr. Erdogan was conveying some kind of reality on the ground, where the patience of many government supporters was wearing thin due to spreading protests.

On Thursday, thousands of AK Party supporters rushed to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport to show solidarity with Mr. Erdogan and boost his morale.

Turkey has been conspicuous for its economic stability and largely democratic rule in the Middle East and there is now a battle consuming the country about the direction of its government. The future success of Turkey now hinges on Mr. Erdogan’s ability to reorient his policies, by staking out a legitimate, popular and inclusive vision for change. To be the prime minister of most Turks, not only 50 percent, Mr. Erdogan has to scale down his rhetoric and abandon the urban planning of Taksim, a sacred venue for Turkish leftists.

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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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