The simple answer is that, whatever one says from the ivory tower, polarization often obeys its own dynamics in the streets.
Nevertheless, understanding the roots of polarization can be helpful, and might also suggest possible approaches for limiting further polarization or even for the formation of new coalitions bridging societal chasms.
It is first important to understand that the polarization we are witnessing in Turkey has historical roots.
As we argued in this post, the history of the Turkish Republic has been largely shaped by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s project of state and elite control over society, spearheaded by the military, state bureaucracy and the Republican People’s Party, the CHP.
This project did transform and modernize Turkish society, in the process building state institutions and starting industrialization, albeit in quite a distorted fashion. But it also polarized Turkish society between elites and non-elites.
The elites came to see the rest of society as backward and incapable of participating in modern life and politics.
Religion gained a special place, because it became a particular language for the non-elites to resist this elite project. (Whether religion was also the reason why the non-elites would necessarily resist any sort of modernization effort is an open question).
Though the Turkish state and (part of) elites did exploit religion, for example, after a 1980 coup against leftist ideologies and groups, this chasm further opened in the 1990s.
In the intervening years, the military and state bureaucracy, now largely victorious against the left, increasingly came to define itself as the staunch defender of the secularist aspects of the Kemalist ideology.
The conflict deepened as religious-conservative parties representing the non-elites of Turkish society started gaining political power and prominence. The first salvo was the ousting from power of the predecessor of the AKP, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). The military also threatened action against the AKP in the 2000s as we discussed here.
Against this background, it is perhaps no surprise that many supporters and probably many of the leaders of the AKP came to view themselves as locked in an existential struggle against the remnants of the Kemalist elites, especially the military and parts of the judiciary. It is reasonable to interpret their actions, especially after solidifying their hold on power in late 2000s, as being determined by this perceived struggle.
In return, the Kemalist elites, already suspicious of the AKP, now had much to feed their suspicions: the AKP was indeed out to get them.
This all sounds very much like a textbook example of the spirals of mistrust and conflict (and partly of miscommunication) discussed by among others in Jervis’s Perception and Misperception in International Politics, though in the domestic rather than international setting.
The spiral goes something like this: Group A takes an action, which, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps because of some other political calculations, looks aggressive to Group B, who then infers that Group A is likely to be aggressive in nature, perhaps harboring secret plans for destroying Group B. Given this perception, Group B acts aggressively. In response, Group A now thinks that Group B is truly aggressive. Group A then reacts aggressively against this perceived aggressive act. As this sequence continues, the conflict spirals and spirals.
How do societies break out of spirals?
There are several ways. First, one group may crush the other, restoring peace. This is neither a peaceful solution nor one that looks appealing for the Turkish context — Turkey needs a balance of power, not the domination of one group over the rest of society, and at the moment, thankfully, neither end of the spectrum looks strong enough to be able to crush the other.
Second, the two groups may become tired of fighting or the long spiral ultimately brings its own dissolution, for reasons that are developed in this paper (essentially, a very long spiral at some point becomes an informative about the true intentions of the other side, as both sides understand that they are likely to be in a spiral that may have started for some random or incorrect reason). But Turkey does not seem to be close to this threshold at this point.
Third, some leaders may have the vision and courage to take public actions that signal their peaceful intentions, thus paving the way for the formation of new coalitions. An illustrative example of this is Nelson Mandela’s meaningful and self-sacrificing gesture of wearing the jersey of the rugby team, Springbok, traditionally associated with the racist, apartheid state and repression against blacks. (see here).
With this courageous move, Mandela not only signaled his willingness to work with whites, but ultimately united the South African nation in its march towards democracy.
This would be the hopeful solution for Turkey.
There are two possible paths to this. The first is for President Abdullah Gül, who has so far taken the most conciliatory and mature attitude within the AKP both on this and other matters, or some other AKP leader to be able to change the balance of power within his party, while continuing to try to build consensus in Turkish society at large.
The second is for the protests to turn into a fully-fledged new democracy movement, and in the process, for them or their leaders, to publicly signal their willingness to work with the rank-and-file of the AKP — and most importantly that they do not represent the remnants of the Kemalist elites trying to sideline the non-elites from politics.
So bottom line: we badly need a Turkish Mandela.