06/06/2013 01:43 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Who Governs? A Serious Problem for Turkey's Justice and Development Party

The ongoing protests in Turkey, which began in Istanbul's Gezi Park, appear to be transforming into a nightmare scenario for the governing Justice and Development Party of Turkey (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi-AKP). What began as an attempt to prevent the culling of trees by a handful of individuals in a disheveled park quickly spiraled into a widespread national protest against perceived government encroachment of Turkey's secular way of life. Protestors from all walks of life, including groups of devout Muslims, have taken to the streets united in the belief that the government is imposing a dictatorship of the majority and abusing power. Although the AKP hierarchy has consistently highlighted that they have not interfered in how individuals in Turkey should live their lives, the mounting pieces of regulatory and legislative changes that have been announced in the last few months have proved too much for some: legislative proposals to curb the right to abortion, increased regulation surrounding the sale of alcohol, the symbolic destruction of the 'Emek' movie theatre, and finally the proposed remodeling of Gezi Park in Taksim Square.

The problem from the protestors' point of view is predicated upon their belief that democracy does not, and should not, end at the ballot box. Responding to reporters' questions in Tunisia on June 6, Erdogan responded by stating, "We are against the majority dominating the minority and we also cannot tolerate the opposite." In contrast, if one clear message is coming out from peaceful protestors in multiple cities across Turkey, it is that the 50 percent who did not vote for the AKP want to be listened to, their views represented and taken seriously. Although deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc made overtures to accept such a premise, even apologizing for the disproportionate and excessive use of force, Erdogan followed up by stating that the "state cannot be governed through a system of give and take" between the priorities of the government and ad hoc demands of dissenters. The trouble with this approach is that it does not seem to be working. The protestors are not going anywhere and the number of people taking to the street and peacefully protesting the perceived recalcitrance of the government is growing.

An important part of the problem for the AKP stems from the fact that they do not appear to know what they are dealing with. The vast majority of individuals protesting are non-violent, not aligned with a specific political party, nor have they engaged in popular protests before and are upset by the government's analysis of their concerns and have made effective use of social media as both a protest and organizing tool. Every comment by Erdogan or other government representatives perceived to be non-conciliatory and belittling of the protestors' cause has been taken by individuals, re-defined, re-packaged and hurled back at the government via twitter and facebook. The word 'çapulcu' (cha-pul-ju), a term used by Erdogan to describe the protestors, meaning looters/hooligans, has been embraced as a term by the crowds to suggest that if individuals who want to petition or object to their government's actions via peaceful methods are to be referred to as çapulcu, then they would continue to çapul! The protestors are equally disappointed and outraged toward the mainstream media in the country, which for the first few days did not provide coverage on the popular uprising and police brutality and instead chose to air wildlife documentaries on penguins. Creative individuals have satirized the penguin and penguin documentaries ad nauseam on their social media spaces, effectively chastising the mainstream media and compelling some broadcasters to even apologize for not covering the events.

What can the government do to placate and end the protests and what do these protests mean for the country? A win-win scenario for the AKP may require a full backing down by the government, canceling the planned remodeling of Gezi Park, and holding accountable all law enforcement officials who were involved in brutal crowd control operations, and a commitment to more consultative government. A full admission of wrongdoing would likely divide the protesting crowds and once again strengthen the PM's public standing in Turkey as well as abroad. As it stands, it is likely that Mr. Erdogan is likely to dig in because of his firm belief that government cannot be held ransom to the demands of the street. The continued stand-off by both sides is likely to weaken the financial markets which have already dipped sharply over the last few days. More poignantly, however, Turkish society is becoming increasingly polarized and this is quickly escalating into a battle of lifestyles and 'lifeworlds': a local chapter of the Ataturkist Thought Society in the Black Sea city of Rize was attacked by a pro-government mob when they wanted to deliver a public statement on June 5. The longer the stand-off continues, the more likely it is that serious and violent confrontations between opposing sides will ensue. It is incumbent upon the government to try to negotiate a settlement, which will mean acknowledging, to some degree, the grievances of the protestors.

The government will have to deliver a message and presumably an apology which the protestors can accept. Acceptance is a tricky notion though: will the government be able to acknowledge that there are grievances which have to be addressed? What steps will the AKP take that will not make individuals want to protest?