The Middle East Channel

Erdogan's dilemma

The demonstrations started in Istanbul a few days ago. The initial objective was to protect the park in Taksim, Istanbul's central square, from being demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. But the police intervened with excessive force against a peaceful assembly, liberally using tear gas to disperse protesters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the project will go ahead regardless of the "few" people that oppose it. As a result, this local dispute was unexpectedly transformed into a city and then a nation-wide mass demonstration against his polarizing style.

The mass protests should be seen as a reaction against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan's style of majoritarian governance. By cementing a pro-government majority and avoiding consensus on sensitive issues, Erdogan's political strategy has polarized Turkish society. This majoritarian approach to decision-making has worked well for him so far. He not only succeeded in setting the agenda for the country, but he also increased his popular support over three successive elections. But it now seems that this style of governance has reached the limit of Turkish society's tolerance. The recent adoption of a law on alcohol that significantly impedes the marketing, sales, and consumption of alcoholic drinks had already stirred a debate in Turkey about the government's negligence to take into account the sensitivities of Turkey's non-conservatives. Moreover, Erdogan's defense of the law by referencing religious principles only served to provoke the law's secular opponents. Instead the decision to transform a public park in the central square of Istanbul into a shopping mall became the rallying theme for many Turks to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Erdogan's leadership.

Compared to past rallies in Turkey's democratic history, this week's events stand out for a number of reasons. First, the mass demonstrations are against the non-participatory style of decision-making adopted by the Erdogan government, but they are not ideological. They have not been hijacked or led by any single political party or ideology, as the protesters hail from disparate backgrounds and represent the rich diversity of Turkish society. They are composed of youth, women, football club supporters, trade unionists, college students, NGO activists, and urban professionals.

Second, there is for the first time a sense of empowerment against a government that has dominated the political scene for the past decade. This sense of popular empowerment stands in stark contrast with the dismal performance of Turkey's parliamentary opposition. The oft-made comparisons to the Tahrir demonstrations are not correct. Turkey is a democracy and there is no call for regime change like in Egypt. The only overlap with Tahrir remains this immense sense of empowerment and emancipation by the ordinary citizens that have seen the impact they can have on the political system if they act in unison.

And then there is the media. Turkey's mainstream media has become the laughing stock of the country. While Istanbul was burning with tear gas, Turkish TV channels were busy broadcasting documentaries, cooking shows, or soap operas. The Saturday edition of the pro-government major daily Sabah has not mentioned the events. The government imposed a blackout and the widespread self-censorship further discredited the mainstream media in the eyes of the Turkish public, which turned to international media outlets or to social media to follow the events on their streets. Indeed, one clear winner has been social media. Many Turks rushed to Twitter and the like to witness the rallies in real time. According to a study conducted by New York University's Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory, the social media response to and the role of social media in the protests has been phenomenal. Within a window of 24 hours, at least two million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest, have been posted. Even after midnight on Friday, more than 3,000 tweets about the protest were published every minute.

The way forward is, however, unclear. Erdogan conceded a small victory on Saturday to the protesters by withdrawing the police forces from Taksim square and admitting to their excessive use of force. But more defiantly, he reiterated his willingness to proceed with the disputed Taksim square reconstruction project. Yet regardless of how the events unfold in the coming days, there are two conclusions that can be drawn even now from this episode of unplanned and yet massive protest movements that shook one of Europe's largest cities: one is the glaring need to fundamentally restructure the media in Turkey; and the other the urgency of behavioral change in Erdogan's leadership style.

The blatant failure of the Turkish press to fulfill, even minimally, its role to report events harms the progress of democracy in Turkey. Consequently, new measures should be legislated, such as forcing media companies to shed their non-media activities, to ensure that the independence of the media can be re-established and maintained. Another set of rules should focus on  safeguarding media pluralism.

Although they do not represent an immediate threat to Erdogan's rule in Turkey, these mass protests should nonetheless be taken seriously by the Turkish prime minister. Many Turks have grown increasingly disaffected with the top-down, non-inclusive style of decision-making that has characterized the later years of the Erdogan government. They are tired of polarization and strive for more consensual politics. Erdogan needs to understand this yearning and adopt a more conciliatory mode of leadership.

But possibly even more important for Turkey's future political stability is the increasingly visible gap on the acceptable forms of dissent between the Turkish leadership and society. Erdogan seems genuinely to believe that mass protests have no place in a country administered by a strong, stable, and economically successful government. He emphasizes the ballot box as the venue for social and political stakeholders to show their disaffection with the government. "Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice," he said on Saturday.  "Those who have a problem with government's policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy." But with its maturing and increasingly pluralistic civil society, Turkey has moved beyond this more limited definition of democratic freedoms. The Turkish political leadership, including the parliamentary opposition, have to readjust their outlook. Otherwise with the newly found sense of empowerment of its citizenry, public turbulence in Turkey will become much more common.

Sinan Ulgen is the chairman of the Istanbul based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. His Twitter handle is @sinanulgen1.

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The Middle East Channel

The nuclear issue in Iran's election

June will mark the end of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two terms in office and bring a new leader to the forefront of Iranian politics. At the same time, the country continues to cooperate with the United States and its allies, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and separately with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in ongoing nuclear negotiations. But progress has slowed. Observers have noted that the regime will be unwilling and unable to agree to a compromise until after a new president is chosen. Because of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's close involvement in, and even control over, Iran's elections, however, all indications of progress may not have slowed to a stop. In fact, the country's choice of president could provide insight into Iran's next move.

The upcoming presidential vote is the first since Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009, when mass Green Movement protests erupted after the defeat of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. Last week, eight final candidates were chosen by the country's powerful Guardian Council and two high level candidates were rejected. One of these candidates, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was seen as the Green Movement's best hope for putting a reformist back in office. Rafsanjani, who publically supported the 2009 election protests, was also the most likely candidate to be open to change on the nuclear front. Ahmadinejad's own candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was also disqualified, though his rejection came as less of a surprise. Ultimately, these two rejections send a strong message that the supreme leader intends to allow only those candidates with views aligned with his regime. 

The most high profile of Iran's remaining candidates is Saeed Jalili. Currently the lead negotiator in charge of nuclear talks with the P5+1, Jalili is a hardline conservative who has at times shown a willingness to cooperate with world powers on issues concerning the country's nuclear program but has always stopped short of the compromise necessary to reach a deal. In October 2009, Jalili became the first Iranian official in three years to meet with a U.S. diplomat one-on-one, meeting privately with then Under Secretary of State William Burns on the sidelines of negotiations with the P5+1. Recently, however, Jalili has chosen to put nuclear politics at the forefront of his campaign, reiterating Iran's current hardline stance. On his campaign's official Twitter feed, Jalili indicated that his objective as president would be to accelerate Iran's peaceful nuclear program. He also addressed the position of one of his key opponents at the time. "Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach... defended," Jalili's campaign stated. [We] "shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani's policy." 

Another frontrunner close to Khamenei is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former air force commander and ex-head of the Iranian police force who succeeded Ahmadinejad as Tehran's mayor soon after Ahmadinejad took office. Qalibaf has confirmed that he would pursue nuclear talks "more intelligently" and "neither sanctify nor reject the possibility of holding direct talks with the United States," but will continue to pursue the same "resistance diplomacy" that has characterized Tehran's position so far. As the wide field has narrowed, so has the candidates' perception of the nuclear issue. Importantly, none of Iran's current frontrunners seem to share the belligerent nature of their predecessor, and the Guardian Council's choices are more malleable than the candidates they've left behind, perhaps the reason for their success. For this reason, it seems more likely that the supreme leader seeks a president who will serve as an instrument of his regime with as little pushback as possible.

Even as onlookers were caught up in the possibility of Rafsanjani's election, one important fact remained: Iran's new president will still answer to Khamenei. The candidates' principles will not change this fact. Past leaders have demonstrated, however, that the influence of Iran's president cannot be discounted entirely. A new president loyal to the regime could, in theory, act as a powerful tool for Khamenei. Inasmuch as he is the face of Iran's public relations, the new president will have a great impact on the world's perception of the country and Iran's strained domestic environment, thereby opening, or closing, the political space the supreme leader has available to make a decision. Khamenei may still plan to use this political opportunity to his advantage.

Although Iran's overarching nuclear vision may remain when the dust clears in June, this election still holds a small opportunity for change. And as the supreme leader's influence wanes in the midst of government infighting and a flailing economy, there are some indications that Khamenei may be open to a shift. Under Ahmadinejad, whose holocaust denial and aggressive proclamations made him an inflammatory figure on the world stage, the country has become increasingly isolated and harsh international sanctions have taken their toll. This is not necessarily the status quo, nor is it something Khamenei is comfortable with, particularly as his closest allies in the region have come under increased pressure from unhappy populations. Under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran was able to demonstrate its commitment to international obligations and maintain a relatively good relationship with the West. It is during his time that Iran agreed to halt its uranium enrichment activities and grant U.N. inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, all under the watchful eye of the same supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The supreme leader states that he continues to remain open to direct talks with the United States, but such talks will not yield results until the United States agrees to lift sanctions. A new president will have a small opportunity to capitalize on this potential opening to set his own agenda and move away from the inflammatory rhetoric and policy of the provocative Ahmadinejad. Over the past four years, the country's economy has come under extreme pressure as a direct result of economic sanctions brought on by nuclear intransigence, and there are some indications that even the supreme leader may be looking for a way out.

Even in the case of a political shift, however, the United States will be faced with an ultimate decision in the hands of Khamenei, a leader with whom they have had virtually no relations. For this reason, the United States and its allies should be careful not to place a disproportionate amount of hope in the outcome of Iran's upcoming elections. A new leader could provide a crucial opening for a shift in relations, but the end game will remain the same. In order to find a solution to the current nuclear impasse, the United States and Iran must work to find common ground. If the two sides are unwilling or unable to compromise, negotiations will not succeed, regardless of who comes to power in June.

Laicie Heeley is director of Middle East and defense policy at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.