In ripening and mature democracies, I hate marches. I think they are pointless tactical efforts that divert energy and resources from more productive organizing activities. They look good on teevee, especially when there are lots of women and pretty flags, but strategically, they accomplish very little.
I make a huge exception in repressive places where public gatherings require serious courage. In the old Ukraine, Belarus and Azerbaijan, gathering in a large groups can help move the ball down the field, provided there's a strategic objective.
Let's look at Ukraine. The mass protests on the Maidan in November 2004 were not an end in themselves. Rather, they accomplished a number of critical goals for Ukraine's democrats.*
- First, they communicated public displeasure with the stolen
election when there were no other avenues (such as a free media, legitimate elections or vibrant civil society) open to ordinary people voice their opinion.
- Second, the huge number of people in the streets caused those in the corridors of power to put their fingers to the wind and consider hedging their bets, same as they would if a poll came out or 50 newspaper editorials protested in a normal country.
- Third, in a place where gathering in a group puts you at serious risk of arrest or getting the shit beaten out of you by the police, a large public gathering, in defiance of the authorities, sends a critical and persuasive message: "we are not afraid." Ordinary Ukrainians came to Maidan because they were tired of being afraid. When Kanal 5 flipped and started showing what was really happening in Kyiv, more people felt confident that the security forces couldn't arrest and beat the shit out of everyone and numbers swelled.
- Fourth, so many Ukrainians were on the streets that the police and security forces were outnumbered by their own friends and family, making it even harder for them to fire on the crowd (a distinct possibility at a number of junctures).
- Finally, the large group of people made a storming of the "white house" or the CEC a distasteful, but conceivable, tactic.
Turkey, a flawed, but functioning, democracy is not Ukraine. It has fair elections, a reasonably free media, moribund but unrestricted political parties and a vibrant NGO community. People have lots of ways to make their voices heard. Marches, especially those in the most populous cities that are already strongholds of secularism, do little more than make like-minded people feel good about themselves. More importantly, they are distractions from real work that needs to get done.
People here argue that the ruling AKP party, which won 34% of the vote (nowhere near a majority), holds 66% of parliamentary seats and is attempting to elect a President from its ranks (which, according to the constitution, is within its right), is an Islamic wolf in an economic sheep's clothing. It may be but I don't want to argue about it because it's irrelevant to my point. Counting on the army, or the EU, or any other outside institution to keep it in check is absolutely the wrong approach. As much as I wish the U.S. army would serve as a bulwark against people with whom I politically disagree, and as often as I've advocated a military coup in the U.S. of late, I know it's inappropriate. AKP won in fair elections, represents a legitimate political force in Turkey and has genuine political accomplishments to point to. Get used to it.
In my view, the strategic goals of Turkey's secularists should be to bolster Turkey's secular heritage by demonstrating its value to modern Turkey, especially to those outside Ankara and Istanbul; persuade fence-sitters how their lives would be better if another group shared power; and strengthen their internal structures so they can serve as a check an balance to those in power, thus allowing the generals to spend the summer in their dachas rather than loitering in Cankaya.
Marches accomplish none of this.
Turkey's secular opposition is splintered among a dozen or so parties whose support is in the single digits. The only other party in parliament -- the CHP-- is rightfully marginalized because its policy prescriptions are out of touch with the modern Turkey. Its leader, as the crisp James in Turkey points out, doesn't really believe in the rule of law, either. More than any other democratic institution, Turkey's political parties need to clean up their act and step up to the plate if they want to challenge AKP.
Here, at no additional charge, are a few of Carpetblogger's unsolicited strategic recommendations for Turkey's secular parties:
- Unify. The high threshold of 10% makes this an imperative. New elections could be held tomorrow and if the secular parties remain splintered, the outcome will be identical to the last one. Sure, it will be hard to get social democrats and nationalists to sit at the same table, but if you were serious about protecting democracy AND secularism, that's what you do need to do now. Elect new leaders too. If you want to hold a march, hold a unity march after you ink an agreement. THAT would communicate something important (but do other things too).
- Organize: It takes a lot of effort to get 700,000 people to the streets. You need communications and port-a-potties and signs and sound systems and permits. Take those resources and devote them something that will actually help you win an election, like building your organization, identifying supporters in swing regions and using modern targeting techniques. Don't know where to start? Well...
- Poll: Any organization that is trying to identify and persuade supporters without modern strategic polling (not sociological polling conducted by universities -- there's a huge difference) is flying blind. You need to figure out exactly where your threshold of support stands (is it 20%? 33%? 41%?), where those potential supporters live and what the most persuasive message is to get them on your team. You don't need to win over every voter, only 33% (or however many you need) of them. Find some money and do it.
The worst part about marches like the one in Istanbul on Sunday and in Ankara a few weeks back is that they give participants the false impression that they are actually doing something to change the situation. No one got organized as a result of those marches. Not one nurse in Izmir or office worker in Bursa decided, "well, AKP had done a lot to improve the economy, but I've been told secular values are important and those Istanbul secularists can organize a pretty good march, so I guess they deserve my vote." It's like a bunch of smug San Francisco liberals holding anti-war march on Market Street. Breaking! San Francisco Liberals oppose the war in Iraq!
As the only functioning Muslim democracy with a growing economy in the region, there's a lot at stake here. The prospect of Sharia scares me and so does the prospect of a military coup. What scares me the most, however, is that the secularists are allowing this opportunity to slip out of their hands.
If either scenario develops, Turkey's secularists have no one to blame but themselves and their marches.
*Why mass actions didn't work in Azerbaijan is the topic of a completely different post.