Samaras & Erdogan: Responsibly Irresponsible

The World


Mr. Samaras and Mr. Erdogan, Prime Ministers (PMs) of two bordering countries that appear to be on different paths have shared much more the past weeks than they have perhaps imagined they ever would.  The mechanism that started off the protests and fired them up sprang from public concerns over the legitimacy of government decisions with respect to the democratic process rather than the economy.  Both PMs claimed to be doing the responsible thing; the resulting protests and political instability created suggest they are incorrect.

In the Turkish case a decision to build on Taksim square, one of the last remaining open spaces in Istanbul, and an area that probably means something special to the 20mil living in the city started off the protests.  It remains unclear what exactly was/ is supposed to be built on the square: a mall, a mosque, a surprise.  But it has been the authoritarian reaction of the government and Mr. Erdogans statements, in particular, that turned up the heat on the streets.  On the ground level, the violence with which the police cracked down on protesters has been inhumane, extreme and oppressive.  The arresting of lawyers, extensive use of teargas, shooting water canons at point-blank, threatening to bring out the army.  On the political level the PM has refused to acknowledge the reasons behind the protests, sidelining public arguments with cleverly irrelevant comments.  Mr. Erdogan insisted on reminding us all that the country is well advancing under his rule, that the population protesting is not the 50% that elected him and that anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. Regarding comments coming from representatives of observing countries he pointed out that this is none of their business and/ or they can't handle Turkey's progress.

In the Greek case, Mr. Samaras decided that the easiest way to reform the Greek national broadcaster (ERT) would be to shut it down overnight, arguing it is a wasteful public organization overtaken by political interests. In a country that ranks 94th on corruption (TI index 2012), the same argument can apply for the: Greek police, IRS, broader bureaucracy, MPs, ministers, army.  Just shutting them down is not a solution.  The government produced no plan regarding the reform of ERT.  Moreover, there was no parliamentary discussion on the subject, not even agreement amongst the government's partners.  ERT, like Taksim, bears its own symbolism for Greeks; not just the 2,500 fired overnight. But the lack of any warning or consultation led people to march to the streets and to the main HQ of ERT in Aghia Paraskevi.  To make things worst Mr. Samaras and his party, ND, retained the position that protesters are essentially supporting a corrupt organization and are refusing reform for the better future of the country.  Similar to Turkey this only intensified the public's reaction.  However, unlike Turkey the police was no way near as violent.  [For similar comparisons of protests regarding police violence in Greece one needs to go back approximately two years ago].

Different Protests; Similar Causes

That is to say that the protests that have been taking place in Turkey for nearly a month and those in Greece the past couple of weeks have been primarily about the legitimacy of the government and accountability: not the economy.  Despite being a central argument in the discourse of both PMs, the economy is: i) in a worst state than what they claim; ii) irrelevant.  

This is particularly interesting bearing in mind the opposite economic paths both countries are on.  In Greece the economy is not doing better, numbers may suggest the free-fall has stopped.  But the fall is continuing, the number of unemployed is (still) on the rise, the economy is still contracting, deficits are lower but still running and the debt is rising.  Turkey on the other hand has been enjoying (near) double digit development rates for nearly a decade.  Parts of the population have been lifted out of poverty and the country has regained a strong presence in the broader region.  

But both countries share human rights violations by the state broadly and the police in particular; extremist elements within the political and administrative spheres; problematic (to say the least) judicial/ justice systems; obligatory military service; corruption (Turkey actually ranks much better than Greece at 54; TI 2012I). 

In both cases the PMs have insisted that they did the responsible thing.  But the political and social de-stabilization that this has caused suggests that they are rather irresponsible.  Turkey is observing political polarization and public anger the PM is, at this point, de-legitimized on the international scene (at least on the Western front) and for a great portion of the Turkish population as well (both within and outside the country).  The Turkish economic miracle has shown a very ugly political head.  In Greece today one of the three political parties supporting the government pulled out of the coalition over lack of agreement on the issue of ERT while the IMF has threatened to pull the funding/ bail-out plug if political instability continues.


The patterns obeserved are two fold.  First, the economy has shifted from being the main subject at hand while politics and in particular participation & accountability have come back into play.  That is not to say that economics do not matter, but the democratic process is important.  This applies both to debt ridden Greece as to economically advancing Turkey. Second, the question remains whether these protests (Brazil is another example) can retain momentum and have an impact.  By themselves they are part of the democratic process but in countries where institutions have been captured it is necessary for some other independent body to internalize the organizational costs of representation.  In particular when political parties cannot, will not or are not trusted.

In Greece it seems ERT will re-open following a court ruling but it is unclear how it will be reformed. In Turkey the PM has called for a referendum on whether to build Taksim.  The protests ensue, responsibly.


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