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Sometimes You Can't PARK Negotiations

Mike Freedman

Taking a position in a conflict makes its resolution more difficult. And the more witnesses there are to that position-taking the less the likelihood of a negotiated settlement.   

In Istanbul positions have been taken in the most public sense possible in front of a global audience and I am not alone in fearing that a settlement is unlikely in the short-term.

One thing we learn from watching thousands of hours of negotiation is that people either act or dig in NOT because of a complicated array of issues but usually for a SINGLE issue.  Conversely, where many issues are raised these are generally some form of rationalisation of a single need or argument, or even a smoke screen.  In Istanbul, the protestors' single issue is that they feel that the government interferes with their personal choices and freedoms.  The government, beneath the watchful eyes of the passive majority, feels a need not to be seen to have given in.

If an election were to be called tomorrow it is probable that the ruling AKP would be returned, similarly if a referendum were to be called upon the perceived issue of the Gezi Park construction it risks being a pointless reflection of that electoral majority, the largest part of which has never seen Gezi Park. 

The Turkey trouble is also not a series of urban riots the likes of which have taken place in the UK and France in recent years.  The shops do not appear to be looted, and in the park the protesters sing songs, clean up, and have set up a makeshift library and visitors bring and distribute food.

To begin to understand what is happening in Turkey and particularly its metropolitan areas you have to understand how surgically divided the population is along political/ideological lines.  I attended the world basketball final held in Istanbul in September 2011 and I was astounded by the almost universal reaction of the crowd to Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan's entrance when he presented the gold medals to the USA team. The booing and verbal abuse of the tens of thousands of people in the auditorium was deafening.  The police attempted to remove people from the crowd around where I stood.  Any foreign visitor in such a situation would understandably conclude that the prime minister was totally without support in his own country. But the fact is a majority of the public is pro-Erdoğan. A look at the electoral map would show the AKP base in the majority is in economically less influential areas of Turkey (a country three times the land area of the UK with a population of over 70 Million).  A minority but in broad terms better educated, more privileged and generally commercially and culturally more influential section of the electorate tends to be based in İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir and other main towns.  They are ideologically set against the ruling AKP.  The divisive issues are those such as restrictions upon alcohol, lifting of the ban upon headscarves and separation of state and religion.

Is there a quick fix here? 

Anyone having attended a Scotwork course should remember the 8 means of resolving a conflict, these are worth taking a look at in the light of recent events…

  1. One side persuades the other.. (we know that even in an unemotional cooperative environment just how unlikely this is, so let's set this aside)
  2. Postponement…,(students are coming out of universities, schools closing soon, no rain expected until September, this is unlikely for some time),
  3. Problem-solving…  (very difficult when the discussion is ostensibly the Gezi Park but the real issues are other than the park and not perceived even similarly by either side)
  4. One side gives in.. (after such a massive statement of each side's position in front of a global audience neither side will surrender let's say it's unlikely and could actually be counter-productive but see below),
  5. One side is beaten into submission… (this has been tried and hasn't worked),
  6. Both sides could move towards some "middle road" solution… (given time it is probable but again they have both taken such positions this is hard to see happening in the short-term, to do so both sides will need to back down to an extent and pride / honour are not commodities in short supply in this conflict.  If it happens after such upheaval it will be a test of the public's collective memory),
  7. Negotiation (Here the Prime Minister's majority (in negotiating terms "power") encourages him to use expressions such as "No Concessions".  This effectively means "No Negotiation")
  8. Seek a third party to arbitrate, (even if such a party exists it is hard to imagine that either side would listen. Outsiders for e.g. may be surprised to find that most protesters believe the USA is closer to AKP's position than to their own).

Many of the above options are wiped out because the intransigent positions were taken in front of a global audience.  When there were just six tents of protesters in the park this situation would have been easier to resolve but after so much violence and lives lost the sense of justification and feeling of collective responsibility of the protestors grows, as does the Prime Minister's apparent need to be seen to stand up against the protest.

There has been a small development yesterday morning which is interesting in a negotiation context. I read the following from the national Daily Hurriyet newspaper.

"The Taksim Solidarity Platform, which represents the core of the Gezi Park protest, has softened some of its demands on the government, dropping its request that the governor and interior minister be dismissed but refusing to budge on protecting the park".

The Taksim Solidarity Platform is not politically elected but if this is true and if they are representative of the protest, it constitutes an unconditional concession on the part of the protestors.

Unconditional concessions are generally viewed as a positive first step, unfortunately as negotiating consultants we see such moves as likely to create greater unconditional demandsfrom the other party eventually leading to deadlock. 

What needs to happen here is that one side has to make a realistic proposal, the simple definition being a balanced statement of BOTH demands and concessions that are not costly for the conceding side and yet valuable for the receiving party. 

In an ideal world the Prime Minister might say to the Protestors...

"If you the protestors vacate Gezi Park, we the government will scrap the project".

To which the protestors could reply

"If you the government place a monument to those that have died in the conflict then we will vacate the park",

And the government might say  

"If this is positioned as a reminder that this sort of thing should not happen again (without apportioning blame), then we have a deal". 

It is of course naïve to assume that this can happen.  Very unfortunately because of the residual detritus of position-taking that has taken place in Turkey and takes place in most conflicts, negotiation is currently very unlikely.  In conflict we propose that people separate themselves from the issue, but when the party dictating the outcome is the Prime Minister then Prime Minister Erdoğan's only means of doing this would be to tell the people that he has had a dream and has received instructions from the ultimate authority!  His supporters would doubtless believe it.

Mike Freedman, Istanbul June 2013

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