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It will be busy at the rallies that governing party AKP will hold this weekend in Ankara and Istanbul to show how many people support the party and Prime Minister Erdogan. There’s not much spontaneous about it: the supporters of the Prime Minister are like tame sheep, showing up when the leaders order them to. By doing so, they perfectly represent old Turkish politics. Unlike those protesting against the Prime Minister.

These are not the first huge demonstrations against Erdogan’s AKP government. In the summer of 2007 hundreds of thousands of people also took to the streets of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir to express their disapproval of the government. Still, these demonstrations bear no comparison with the ones being held now. They were tightly organized and supported by Turkey’s old elites: foundations that foster the staunch secularist legacy of Turkey’s founding father Atatürk, academics from the old guard, army personnel, and the opposition party CHP that was founded by Atatürk.

The slogans were far from original (Turkey is secular and will remain secular!) and the protestors were for the most part just as sheepish as the supporters of the party they were rallying against. From all corners of the country the organizing and supporting parties arranged buses to the cities where the demonstrations were held, and woe betide you (read: your reputation, your job) if you didn’t hop on.

That’s exactly how it goes now with the AKP. The municipalities of both Ankara and Istanbul are governed by the AKP, and also in many surrounding provinces the party won a majority in the last local elections. The municipalities arrange transport and call on their supporters and their civil servants to join the rallies. Only those who don’t fear for their job, their business or their respected place in society do not get on board.

It’s not so surprising, the preference Turks have for strong leaders. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was their first. After the end of the Ottoman Empire under his leadership the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. After that, it was he who put Turkey on the global map, governing by decree.

The dictator (opponents were killed, other political parties were not allowed, his word was law) is still worshipped in Turkey. His example taught Turks the love for this one Great Leader, who with his vision defined the direction of the nation. Doubting his leadership is treason, subsequently thinking for yourself is not encouraged. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a leader just like that, actually the most powerful leader Turkey has known since Atatürk. His supporters don’t hold his authoritarianism against him. They admire him for it.

On the one hand, the current protests in Turkey show Turkey’s old polarisations. Flags with the portrait of Atatürk, which also symbolize the rejection of Erdogan, are widely seen at the demonstrations. More important though is that around seventy percent of the protestors in Istanbul indicated, in an online survey by an Istanbul university, that they are not affiliated with any political party or other organization. Two thirds of the participants in the survey were between 19 and 30 years old.

These are the young, highly educated and urban Turks who reject the concept of the Great Leader. They don’t want to go back to the old Turkey, as the participants in the rallies in 2007 did. They want freedoms, they finally want to get rid of authoritarian leadership that governs by decree. Nobody has to order them to show up at tightly organized gatherings, they take to the streets purely on their own initiative. They, in other words, think for themselves. And by doing that, they are the biggest challenge Erdogan has ever faced.

Published in a bit shortened version in daily paper Nrcnext in the Netherlands.

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