Turkey’s Tree Revolution

A Hard Lesson in Democracy

A new vision has dawned in Turkey. ‘The protection of the human rights of all citizens and the active participation of the people in politics and civic life’ are the driving tenets of any democracy. It is only fair for citizens to demand dignity and respect if their voices are not heard.

What began as a clash between environmentalist and police over plans to cut down trees in a park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square to make room for a shopping mall has now resulted in one of the biggest anti-government rallies in decades. In the crackdown, which was ordered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, three people have died, hundreds have been injured and more than 1,000 have been arrested.

Several debates cloud the search for answers about this upheaval. Many claim that Taksim Square is for Turkey what Tahir Square is for Egypt and that Erdogan’s style has become too dictatorial, but as author and social activist Naomi Klein confirms, “Democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity.”

But who would have thought that the right to dignity would be a sought-after goal in a country where Prime Minister Erdogan’s ambitions account for the opening of a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea; the construction of an airport in the wooded lands north of Istanbul, a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, and nuclear power plants?

Given all these splendid achievements, the masses are still driven to protest and they are refusing to tolerate any or all forms of abuse from the state. Unlike Egypt’s Tahir square where people wanted to overthrow a corrupt established order, the people in Taksim square are calling for a regime change. They are demanding the right to be heard in a parliamentary representative democracy where government’s repression of the media, disrespect of public opinion and civil liberties are stifled.

As a result, the revolt in Turkey is much more than just a determination to save rows of sycamore trees. It is the kindled flames of a fire that that has been burning beneath for a long time. It is the fire of Human Rights, Kurdish Rights, Women’s Rights, and Press Freedom. Amnesty International and the International Federation of Journalists have labeled Turkey as “the country with the largest number of journalists under detention. Many renowned journalists have been arrested on charges of terrorism and anti-state activities and have been forced out of their jobs by the personal intervention of the Prime Minister.” While Secularists point to a raft on laws that block the marketing, sales and consumption of alcoholic drinks, Erdogan continues to undermine journalists, intellectuals, artists, judges, human rights activists, and NGOs.

It is clear that Erdo?an’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have departed from the norm of democracy. His assault on political and civil liberties shows that people are fatigued with his despotic style of leadership and substantiates the fact that democracy is a continuous evolving process that can yield surprising results.

In truth, the uprising in Turkey is a revelation that the shared theme of power should always be acknowledged in a democracy. If people feel neglected or abused, they will rise up for “it is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people.”

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, pointedly adds that “the middle class that the AKP has built is telling the governing party- Democracy is not just winning elections, it is also building consensus, so do not push projects down our throats. Talk to us and listen….. Now this middle class wants individual rights and takes issue with the Turkish ruling party’s understanding of democracy.”

As demonstrated by this, Erdogan is not being challenged by the opposition party but by civil society. Although Bloomberg’s editor Marc Champion charges that “Erdogan is a force of nature and has a genius for turning events to his advantage” it must also be seen that the protests are occurring at a time when Erdo?an faces the challenges of drafting a new constitution, overhauling a slowed down economy, a Kurdish peace process, supervising a complex Syrian crisis and entry talks with the European Union.

Unquestionably, the odds are not in his favor.

The protest may eventually dissolve, but it remains a warning sign to leaders the world over that Democracy works best when it flourishes in an atmosphere that celebrates opposition and diversity and the state must respect the power of its citizens. ‘The sovereign power of democracy resides in the people, and is exercised either directly by them or by officers elected by them.’ Democracy cannot thrive without freedom of expression and when fascism and police brutality continue to surpass the will of the people, then protest will eventually follow. As historian Howard Zinn contends, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” Erdogan was elected by the people, but it is wrong to impose conventional social values on people who do not share them.

Thus, the rebellion in Turkey has brought home a hard lesson in democracy — “The People, United, will Never be Defeated.

Rebecca Theodore is a national security and political op-ed columnist based in Atlanta GA. Her work has appeared in various newsprint throughout the Caribbean, Canada and the US. Follow her on twitter @rebethd Read other articles by Rebecca.