LONDON – The protests triggered in Turkey by plans to redevelop a park into a shopping mall at first seem an unlikely cause for public anger. In reality, the demonstrations over Taksim Square’s Gezi Park go to the very heart of Turkey’s modern discontents.
Why it has become such a fraught issue was hinted at in a statement issued in the midst of the protests by Istanbul’s Chamber of Physicians, insisting that “it is not (the) job (of police and officials) to protect the profitability of the contractors who will build a shopping mall on Taksim Square.”
The rapid urbanization of Turkey — and huge growth of Istanbul in the past two decades — has defined the transformation of Turkish society and politics. The continuing migration from rural areas like eastern Anatolia to Istanbul has fueled the growth of the city, driving a building boom.
Politically, it has been Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party that has benefited from this expansion, the recently urbanized being more socially conservative.
While tensions between Turkey’s old secular elites and this new class have long been inevitable, two consequences have not been.
As Transparency International made clear in a recent survey of Turkey, while its elections largely have been free and fair, corruption, especially linked to the construction industry, has been a growing problem. In April, for the first time ever, two officials in the nation’s public housing administration, which enjoys a virtually unopposed monopoly to redevelop private and public land, including a 20-year, $400 billion urban renewal budget, were charged with extorting bribes and abuse of power.
Indeed, those who have benefited from recent large projects have allegedly included key players in Turkish society, including members of Erdogan’s party, a company run by his son-in-law and the Turkish armed forces.
The perception in Turkey that barely regulated development is being driven for the economic benefit of entrenched interests with links to party politics, rather than in the public interest, has been fueled by hard data about the most controversial developments, including Gezi Park.
As a recent article in Hurriyet Daily News made clear, Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, hardly needs more malls. Istanbul already has so many that 11 in the city have been forced to close.
All of these are issues that have been exacerbated by the majoritarian political style of Erdogan and his party. In refusing to back down over the mall development in a speech Saturday, Erdogan underlined suspicions that he has no interest in dialogue with those who oppose him at a time when he is being accused of leading his country down an ever more authoritarian route.
A new controversial law has limited the sale of alcohol in the country, journalists increasingly have found themselves jailed, and moves by Erdogan would replace the 1980 coup constitution with a presidential system where the president would be elected directly and would no longer be reliant on the confidence of parliament.
If there is one thing that links all the themes of Taksim Square together, it is the question of accountability. Or rather the lack of it.