Violence in Turkey: Staggering? Yes. Surprising? Not so much.

Post developed by Katie Brown in coordination with Christian Davenport


Photo credit: Thinkstock

On August 5, 2013, a Turkish court convicted 275 people, including ex-military officers, of plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Though the court case took five years, the verdict comes at a tenuous moment in Turkish politics, deepening the divide between Ergodan and critics.

This summer, protests erupted across Turkey. Initially a movement against the planned development of Taksim Gezi Park, a rare patch of green in the city of 13.5 million, the uproar spread as general government dissent. A small fraction of the protestors resorted to violence. The government cracked down with force in response. Erdogan initially presented a mixed message, alternating between ultimatums, violence, and agreeing to meet with protestors. By the end of June, his message and tactics showed more force. More than 5,000 were injured and 4 killed. Doctors tending to the wounded were arrested, a fact verified by Erdogan. The government also worked to block social media, blamed for spreading the word. And Ergodan lashed out against international media, claiming false representation.

The violence is noteworthy in a country with an emerging democracy with dreams of ascension into the European Union. But is the violence really a surprise?

Research on violent dissent by Center for Political Studies researcher Christian Davenport sheds light on the current situation in Turkey, through his work on the power of democracy to ease repression. A central thesis of the work asserts the calming power decreases in the face of violent dissent. Using a cumulative index created by Polity, Davenport published an article with David Armstrong. The authors find that lower levels of democracy, unlike higher levels of democracy, have no calming influence on violent repression.

A graph from Polity shows the trend over time, illustrating that Turkey is not just a weak democracy, but emerging in many senses. Davenport’s work helps us understand that the violent reaction in response to anti-government protests is not surprising given Turkey’s relatively weak democracy. Turkey’s democracy is weak enough that it cannot pacify repression of this sort.

The EU passed a resolution in response to the violent repression. Erdogan fired back that the EU should, “know [its] place!” The repression was not quelled by Turkey’s weak democracy, nor it seems the EU, both of which are challenged by the violence.

Interestingly, the protests in Turkey are credited with inspiring anti-government protests in Brazil. And while initial protests in Brazil were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, the number of injuries rests near 100. Prime Minister Dilma Rousseff even supported the right to protest, while expressing interest in listening: “These voices need to be heard, my government is listening to these voices for change.” Yet the protests continue and are forecasted to continue up to the 2014 World Cup, hosted in Brazil and a source of dissent.

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