Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Turkey, Peaceful Protests in a Declining Democracy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Turkey, Peaceful Protests in a Declining Democracy

Article excerpt

What is it about public squares - especially those that start with "T" - that draws people to protest against authoritarian rulers? China's big protests in 1989 were in Tiananmen Square. Egypt had its 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Now Turkey has seen four days of protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

The Turkish protests, however, are quite different. They challenged a fairly elected government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the spark was only a small sit-down against a planned destruction of a park. Yet that led to an explosion of peaceful demonstrations nationwide, fueled in large part by popular resentment against Mr. Erdogan's crackdown on dissent since his party was reelected two years ago.

Dozens of journalists have been jailed under Erdogan, often without being charged. Civil society groups have been harassed. Human rights lawyers have been arrested or imprisoned. And the prime minister, who heads the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, also appears to be maneuvering to alter the Constitution to keep him in power, perhaps until 2024.

Taksim Square became one of the few safe spaces to make a mass cry for freedom.

Turkey's drift toward autocracy has been so worrisome that the protests didn't require a leader. Twitter was the main organizing tool. This led Erdogan to criticize the social media as a "curse" - even though he tweets daily to more than 2.5 million followers.

Protesters also were quite fearless in the face of police brutality, revealing the depth of their resolve to fix a backsliding democracy. As is often the case, elected leaders like Erdogan mistakenly presume elections are sufficient for them to rule without shared governance. They don't consult opponents, honor all minority rights, build a consensus, or operate in a transparent way.

Yet majority rule needs the checks and balances of a free press, independent judiciary, unfettered grass-roots activism, and other correcting mechanisms. Under representative democracy and a rights- ensuring constitution, sovereignty lies with the individual, not the state. …

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