A government may argue, as the Turkish government inevitably does, that it must curb freedom of expression in order to protect the State from meddling outside forces.
It may have a point, for the National Security Archives at George Washington University are replete with examples of popular uprisings dreamed up in the corridors of Whitehall and the Pentagon. The United States’ Operation Ajax and Britain’s Operation Boot spring to mind.
Even so, this argument barely washes with loyal supporters, let alone political opponents. As mere observers, to the normal man and woman on the street, it looks suspiciously like untamed megalomania. Trust is waning.
Turkey has two problems here. The first is that outside forces are indeed meddling in its affairs, and trying their very best bring it to its knees. Gezi Park was supposed to be Turkey’s Tahrir Square; we all remember the manipulation of images in the world Press and on Social Media in its favour.
But the second problem is that ostentation and self-absorption really does appear to have taken hold in the ruling party. It appears incapable of accommodating the pluralistic society it is charged with serving, so much so that anyone that criticizes its present strategy is automatically considered an enemy force.
I don’t know if the present Turkish government will recover when snap elections are held in November. The current wave of unrest and violence, though blamed once more on outside forces by the government, looks just too suspicious to ordinary voters. Will Nationalist voters, appalled by their party’s refusal to form a coalition, return to the Justice & Development Party in large numbers, or will their trust have been shaken by the seemingly convenient hard line all of a sudden taken by a party that was absolutely committed to peace with their sworn enemies?
Difficult times lie ahead. If I was eligible to vote in Turkish elections, my heart would probably lead me to choose one of the Leftist parties, apparently more egalitarian, dynamic and fair. But my head, mindful of what the government has achieved against what it inherited, would say: play it safe, don’t turn back the clock to the dark days of militant secularism, where religious practice was severely curtailed and sometimes criminalised. Credit where it’s due.
The problem for the Justice & Development Party is that young voters have little or no experience of the political repression and economic stagnation which preceded its rule, so cannot appreciate the change it brought. Older voters, meanwhile, do remember those dark old days — and contemporary curbs on freedom of expression and belief are all too reminiscent of them.
The government claims it is taking a difficult path in order to protect the State from meddlesome external forces. But this just won’t wash with the electorate. It desperately needs to rethink its strategy; it needs to connect with its citizens, whoever they are and whatever they believe. It needs to listen as much as it demands to be heard.