Premier Erdogan’s strong-arm tactics have created a previously unthinkable coalition of the opposition in Turkey
What began on May 28 as a peaceful protest against government plans to turn Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul, into a shopping mall metamorphosed into a widespread protest against the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) and was met with perhaps the most violent police attacks in Western Turkey against peaceful protesters in recent memory.
After the protests that raged across the Arab world two years ago, it was easy to call it a “Turkish Spring”— a demand for democracy in one more Middle Eastern country. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was directed not against an aging autocrat but a Prime Minister who had won three successive elections, a feat achieved by no other Turkish leader.
The AKP’s Islamic bent has also led to facile portrayals of the protests as a clash between secular and Islamist Turks. Yet, the AKP’s electoral victories were not predicated merely on the support of Islamists — and the country’s influential cleric Fethullah Gulen, in self-exile, has openly supported the protest.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to build his electoral victories by diluting the dominance of Istanbul’s industrial clans and spreading the benefits of economic growth to the elites of smaller cities and to the rural poor in Anatolia and elsewhere. In recent years, his support also came from sections of the liberal intelligentsia that cheered his subordination of the military that had dominated Turkish politics and approved of his liberalisation of the economy.
Mr. Erdogan has also done more to move toward a resolution of the long-simmering Kurdish problem than any other government. In foreign policy, he has adopted new initiatives toward Iran and was a prominent supporter of the demonstrators against dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya during the Arab Spring.
In fact for the first five to six years after it came to power in 2002, democracy was the AKP’s only defence against the Kemalist elite, secular political parties and the army. It is thus doubly ironic that after years of successfully fighting against authoritarian control, Mr. Erdogan has adopted the very methods that he had struggled against.
He has so corralled the press that when the protests erupted in cities all across the country on May 31, CNN Turk, the main news channel broadcast several hours of documentaries on penguins and dolphins and covered the protests for a mere five minutes. Except for a few channels owned by the opposition party the mainstream media remained as deaf and blind as could be. According to Reporters Without Borders, 67 journalists are behind bars, making Turkey the world leader in imprisoning reporters.
As the AKP government consolidated its power over the last decade, its opposition had become disorganised and the government increasingly authoritarian. Acting as though its 50-per-cent vote share gave it the power to do whatever it wanted, the Erdogan government has been passing a series of laws that aim to regulate and restrict abortions, alcohol consumption and sale, and even the public display of affection.
This majoritarian conception of power has brought together several disparate constituencies in opposition to the government. The Kemalists are angry at the diminution of their power, the nationalists resentful of any concessions to the Kurdish minority, and secularists oppose his attempts to bring religion into the public sphere. Despite some economic growth, unemployment remains over 10 per cent and as austerity measures are implemented in debt-stricken southern European countries, Turkey’s cost-competitive advantage has evaporated.
It is this majoritarian exercise of power that led the Erdogan government to go ahead with plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall in Gezi Park with minimal public consultation that sparked the current round of protests. Instead of dealing with it as a municipal issue, the national government unleashed a violent attack on protesters, launching teargas grenades and water cannons against helpless protesters including women, children and the elderly.
The Prime Minister called the protesters “looters” and social media a “troublemaker”. His Minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bagis went further and called the demonstrators “terrorists”.
It is the indiscriminate use of violence against protesters that have mobilised even greater support for them. When Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu called upon mothers to “bring their children home”, the mothers joined their children at the demonstrations and formed a human chain to protect them.
Mr. Erdogan held massive rallies in Ankara and Istanbul saying his supporters are the “real Turkey” while using police and the gendarmes to prevent demonstrators from gathering in the cities. By inciting his supporters he is playing a very dangerous game of intimidation.
Protests by the trade unions in Ankara and Istanbul were also prevented by the police and the gendarmes. Police barricades, the liberal use of teargas and water cannons prevented protesters from congregating anywhere in Istanbul last Sunday and hence frustrated all attempts at mass demonstrations.
The opposition’s response to this intimidation was wonderfully creative. One afternoon, one person, Erdem Gunduz, stood silently in Taksim Square at the heart of Istanbul. Soon others began to stand with Mr. Gunduz and people offered him water and food. Ultimately, the police bundled the people standing and took them away charging them with the unspeakable crime of “resisting the police by standing”!
In the following days thousands of people have followed Mr. Gunduz’s example by simply standing silently. Since the beginning of this week dozens of neighbourhood parks have been turned into popular assemblies at nights like those at Syntagma Square in Athens, Puerto del Sol in Madrid and Zuccotti Park in New York. People also literally voice their opposition to the regime by banging their pots and pans on the windows and balconies every night at 9 p.m.
Mr. Erdorgan and his government persist in failing to address the issues raised by the opposition which has forged an alliance that would have been unimaginable even a month ago. Leftists, Kemalist nationalists, Kurds, gays and lesbians, apolitical youth, and the aloof middle classes have been on the streets with their gas masks, milk (as an antidote to teargas) and hard hats (to protect them from shrapnel from tear gas grenades). Mr. Erdogan’s actions have successfully united the opposition and turned middle classes into urban guerrillas.
More than anything else, the levels of activism, the wide ranging groups it has mobilised and its creative forms demonstrate the maturation of Turkey’s democracy and give hope for the future.
(Biray Kolluoglu is Associate Professor of Sociology at Bogazici University, Istanbul and Ravi Palat is Professor of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton.)