This week’s events in Turkey show that local issues can have a dramatic influence on national politics. What started as a protest against top-down plans to replace a small park adjoining Taksim Square in Istanbul has become a grassroots movement spreading across the country. In all, there have been protests in 67 cities and towns, including Ankara, Eskiesehir, Adana and Antalya.
Because Taksim Square has a long tradition of being a public gathering place for discussion and protest, it is hard to imagine a more tone-deaf decision than to replace this small green space with a replica Ottoman-era army barracks, shopping mall and mosque. What started, however, as a protest against urban “development” has become a much larger protest movement focusing on the lack of central government accountability.
This public protest is being carried out on the streets and on the Internet. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response—“Now we have a menace that is called Twitter…to me, social media is the worst menace against society.”
If the opposition movement wants to move beyond dramatic but unsustainable streets protests, however, it will have to connect with Turkish civil society—especially Turkish NGOs that focus on democracy and human rights. A study by CIVICUS, an international NGO focused on civil society, concluded that human rights groups and the women’s movement in Turkey have increased in size and are well connected with each other. Overall, Turkish NGOs are playing an active role in sustaining and strengthening Turkey’s democratic traditions.
One of the conclusions of my new book about three other countries is that real political change may have to start, as in Turkey, at the grassroots level. Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina focuses on democratization NGOs that strengthen human rights, promote political participation, strengthen the loyal opposition and, to sustain all the rest—democratize political culture. A crucial component of a democratic political culture is governmental accountability—what protestors are fighting for in Turkey.