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The Changing Channels of Political Participation: The Gezi Protests in Turkey

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The channels of political participation in Turkey has been radically altered over the last two weeks. To speak of a Turkish Spring is inaccurate, but one direct contagion from the widespread and tumultuous Arab revolutions is the role of social media and its impact on popular political participation. Put simply, the advent and wide usage of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have enormous crowd organizing capacities in terms of motivation as well as information dissemination. So much so that individuals no longer feel the need to rely on the organizational networks of civil society and political parties to effectively raise their concerns and have them acknowledged by their governments. This presents a problem for all governments because the process of interest projection has become unpredictable, even unstable. The usual channels of petitioning government through membership-based organizations are less relevant today. The ongoing Gezi protests are a testament to this and have caught the governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi-AKP) off its guard.

Turkey is a second wave democracy, and as such became what is commonly referred to as a 'procedural/institutional democracy' following World War II, when competitive and multiparty politics supplanted the one-party rule of Kemal Ataturk's Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi-CHP). The single party years of the republic (1923-46) rarely accommodated political participation and political opposition. The process of electioneering was largely acclamatory, in that voters only got to vote for the CHP. Since 1946, the country has, with mixed results, come to honor the process of power transition to the winner(s) of the ballot box as well as bargaining with interest groups. Mainly beginning in the 1960s, Turkey witnessed an explosion of particularistic demands upon the state and its governments: labor groups, students, political parties, and more recently, minority groups, environmentalists, LGBT activists to name a few. The rise of such organized interests ensured that a plethora of welfare rights such as labor rights, state retirement plans, healthcare and minimum wage became legislative priorities. Only since the AKP came to office in 2002 has the process of managing and trying to accommodate the great variety and increased scope of organized interests assumed an aura of professionalism. One of the hallmarks of the AKP has been its self-projection as the 'representative' and 'listening' party; not just of the people who voted for it, but also those who did not.

In the eyes of the protestors however, this process may not be working. In their opinion, although the AKP has improved the material and economic conditions of the general population and increased Turkey's visibility and credibility in the international arena, this is being achieved via a perceived encroachment on the country's secular way of life. The proposition to remodel Gezi Park and demolish the Ataturk Cultural Center were seen to be the two straws which broke the camel's back. Prior to this, the AKP proposed legislation to significantly curb abortion rights, presided over the demolition of the 'Emek' cinema (a cultural landmark), and has legislated to restrict the sale of alcohol between certain hours. It appears the protestors have taken to the streets mainly due to the fact that numerous successive legislative proposals were adopted with little to no deliberation.

Part of the problem lies in the contested interpretation of what a mandate to rule is. This is not a problem that is unique to Turkey either. For the most part, elected governments, especially those that have attained as strong an electoral support as the AKP (49.9% in 2011), believe they have been given a mandate to govern and be held accountable solely at election times. Tony Blair took the UK to war in 2003 on an electoral mandate of less than 35% against a 60% visceral public disapproval for the war, arguing that the electorate could reprimand him at the next election. At a very practical and instrumental level, many governments in the world still espouse implementing a version of Joseph Schumpeter's conception of 'minimalist democracy': that is to say, the job of electors is to elect their governors once every so often, and once this is done, should step aside and refrain from "bombarding" them.

Whilst this may be the norm, norms appear to be changing, and changing fast: individuals equipped only with a smartphone, loaded with Twitter and Facebook apps, seem to have neither the desire nor the patience for using conventional channels to petition their governments. The proposed remodeling of Gezi Park ignited a sudden spark and within hours resulted in thousands of people occupying the central Taksim square area. In days, the protests spread to most major cities throughout Turkey, causing significant civil unrest. This raises crucial questions not just for the AKP but for any government: given that individuals may not be aligned with the views of any particular political party, are disgruntled with government actions/proposals, and are able and willing to organize at a moment's notice using little more than wit and 140 characters, how does a government respond to such demands? What are the immediate and longer term implications for organized interests such as unions? To what extent does the government have to accommodate demands made on the street? For many Turks on the streets, there is no other choice: opposition political parties such as the CHP may be even less appealing than the AKP and the mainstream media has not been a reliable and critical voice advocating all varieties of opinion. These series of events will continue to present a steep learning curve for all those who govern Turkey, and will serve as an example to other governments: social media and its potential can and already has reshaped the parameters and channels of political participation and democratic governance.