Turkey’s Protests: The Politics of an Unexpected Movement

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An anti-government protester shouts for help to extinguish a burning container in Istanbul's Taksim square 4 June, 2013. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

An anti-government protester shouts for help to extinguish a burning container in Istanbul’s Taksim square 4 June, 2013. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Q – How did the Istanbul unrest start and how widespread is it?

The Istanbul unrest started out on 27 May as a small sit-in by a handful of people who wanted to prevent the uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, a rare patch of green in central Istanbul. Removing the trees was part of a government plan to redesign the adjacent Taksim Square. When, early on Thursday, 30 May, police tried to expel the Gezi Park activists with tear gas and set their tents on fire, the protests morphed into a popular movement.

During the next 24 hours, thousands joined in the demonstrations. The police tried to disperse them using high-pressure water hoses and tear gas, which Human Rights Watch described as an “excessive use of force against protestors”. Slogans began to change from protests against the Taksim Square project  – which aimed to put a shopping mall on the park, add a sweeping pedestrian plaza, build a big new mosque, and clear up a clutter of shops blocking the view of a cathedral – to demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Erdoǧan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. By Saturday 1 June, 100 people had been reported wounded.

Protests grew exponentially, first to other neighbourhoods in Istanbul, and then to other provinces, with over 60 of Turkey’s 81 provinces experiencing some form of protest by Monday 3 June. In Ankara and İzmir, clashes were at times fierce. One protestor was shot dead in unclear circumstances in Hatay province, another killed when a car ran into a crowd of protestors in Istanbul. Milliyet newspaper reports 3,400 protestors arrested nationwide, with many later released, and the Doctors’ Union reports 1,800 protestors wounded by 4 June. The government says 244 police have been injured too. Sunday and Monday nights, 2 and 3 June, saw especially ugly battles in Ankara and on two major streets in Istanbul, where several badly hurt protestors were taken in for treatment in a waterfront Ottoman mosque commandeered by volunteer medics.

Q – Who are the protestors?

The unrest in Turkey today is unprecedented, due to the spontaneous nature of the protests, the fact that many of the protestors have never demonstrated before, and how demonstrators appear to rely on ad-hoc coalitions of volunteers from a jumble of professional bodies, university students, school classes, football fan clubs and radical hard left groups. There are similarities with a series of huge anti-AKP, secularist demonstrations in 2007, but these were old-fashioned affairs with speakers and singers on stages – and the tacit support of the old Turkish republican establishment in the military and bureaucracy, whose power has steadily weakened since.

The bulk of the protestors thronging Istanbul’s central streets by day are middle-class, often spurred into action by social media networks. Many of them hold regular jobs, including bankers, lawyers, academics and other private-sector personnel. Women are notably numerous at the protests. Celebrities turn up to be photographed helping to clean up Taksim Square. Bands of high-school children skip classes day after day, defying their families, donning the black signature colour of the protests and sneaking to demonstrations with water bottles filled with anti-tear-gas vinegar from the kitchen back home.

In parallel to the demonstrations, whole middle-class districts of Istanbul have erupted on consecutive nights with the sound of ordinary people coming onto the streets or their balconies to beat Turkish-coffee pots, saucepans and metal trays with spoons. Adding to the cheerful cacophony are cars hooting in sympathy as they make their way in processions of support.

Even more unusual is the presence of rival groups acting side-by-side, including those representing the Alevi community (about 10 percent of Turkey’s population), ultra-nationalists, right-wing conservatives, a few Islamists and Turkey’s Kurds — some even carrying outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) flags. More marginal groups also joined in the protests, including leftists and Marxists as well as anarchists waving black banners. People from these groups are often the most aggressive on the frontlines where clashes with the police take place.

Still, a significant number of people in Turkey are unaware of the nature of the protests, or that there is anything unusual about them, due to the way Turkish television news channels either did not cover the drama or played it down. Mainstream entertainment channels still broadcast little on the unrest. This spurred criticism that they yielded to government pressure and even sparked a large lunch-hour demonstration on 3 June by office workers in Istanbul’s financial district against one leading news station and its holding-company owner. Without proper news coverage and regular statements from authorities, many Turks turned to Twitter and Facebook.

Q – What do the protestors want?

The protestors have no obvious single demand, beyond the most popular catch-all slogan that the prime minister should resign. The protests also have no clear leadership, beyond some members of Istanbul’s network of civil-society leaders who have associated themselves with the movement. The Gezi Park building project appears to have been a catalyst rather than a cause: a last drop that burst a dam of pent-up emotions among middle-class, secular Turks who increasingly felt sidelined by the ruling AKP. While cementing over green land is normal in Turkey (just 1.5 per cent of Istanbul is green space), this came after several weeks in which non-AKP voters had become disturbed by a steady flow of government construction and other initiatives.

Many protestors object to some or all of a slew of major infrastructure projects that will change Istanbul with little or no public input or oversight. In past weeks these have included setting in motion a third airport, which will be the world’s biggest; a grand new mosque on a hilltop seen from most parts of Istanbul; the controversial Tarlabaşı town centre renovation project, near Taksim; and the destruction of a much-loved old Istanbul cinema to make way for yet another shopping mall. A vast land reclamation in the Marmara Sea and a major ship canal parallel to the Bosporus are also planned.

This has sharpened an existing polarization on Turkey’s secularist-religious conservative socio-political fault-line. Many protestors are worried that AKP has a creeping Islamist agenda, reflected in the demonstrators’ frequent slogan of “we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal,” a reference to the secularist founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A first hint at the current unrest came when Turkey’s social media lit up in mid-May with days of angry messaging after the government suddenly introduced a new range of regulations limiting the sale of alcoholic drinks. Prime Minister Erdoǧan has said he would never ban alcohol, and that the regulations were an attempt to harmonize Turkey’s laws with those of “advanced countries” and reduce the appalling number of people killed in drunk-driving accidents. But secularist Turks were deeply offended that Erdoǧan also indirectly called Atatürk a “drunkard” and that he supported the regulations on a religious basis. They saw these as alarming signs that the government would take further steps to impinge on secular lifestyles.

Protestors celebrating in Taksim Square, 1 June, 2013. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Protestors celebrating in Taksim Square, 1 June, 2013. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

There is also a demand for more space for freedom of expression and assembly – a demand that has won unusually open support from the U.S. Left-wing groups in particular were frustrated that the AKP did not allow them to celebrate May Day 2013 in Taksim Square, as they had done since 2010. Instead, on 1 May there were bitter fights with the police in many of the same places there have been in recent days.

Above all, however, demonstrators say they seek a change in the government’s style, particularly with what is perceived as Prime Minister Erdoǧan’s increasingly authoritarian, “we know best” attitude in the run-up to his expected bid to change Turkey’s constitution to create an executive presidency — and then to run for the presidential post in 2014. (As Prime Minister Erdoǧan cut the ribbon to start work on a massive third bridge over the Bosporus last week, he said of the Taksim demonstrators: “They can do what they want. We’ve made our decision and we will do as we have decided.”) The demonstrators’ often-used slogan of “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” may best be translated as an angry belief that the AKP uses its impressive political strength to ride roughshod over the 50 per cent of the country that did not vote for it, and who feel that they have no real opposition party through which to channel their views.

Q – Has there been looting and vandalism by the protestors?

There has been some damage to property, especially in Taksim Square, where a police car was smashed up, a few buses were wrecked, and a TV truck belonging to a station that gave little news of the protests was pushed over. On some roads where running battles between protestors and police took place, bus stops, fences and pavements have been taken apart and used to construct barricades. In Ankara, especially, there were incidents of looting of shops in the city centre.

On Istanbul’s central Istiklal St, which leads to Taksim Square, the main problem was fresh anti-government graffiti covering the walls and shop-fronts. Only one shop appeared to have been systematically wrecked: a pastry café owned by AKP’s Istanbul mayor. A few shops had their fronts broken but were not looted, partly due to pressure from demonstrators. Shop-owners moved fast to repair damaged shop windows and clean off the graffiti.

In response to Prime Minister Erdoǧan’s description of them as ruffians, extremists and looters, the young, middle-class majority of the protestors often appeared to be on their best behaviour, organising clean-up campaigns and anxious to prove that they are better citizens than they are portrayed by the government.

Q – Is this a “Turkish Spring” to follow those in the Arab world?

Not really; it is more a popular reaction to a strong leader who has been in power for 10 years and misjudges the popular mood.

Unlike most states in the Middle East, Turkey has a democratically elected government. It came to power for a third consecutive term with 50 per cent of the vote in 2011 elections. It has been an effective administration and is, for instance, currently engaged in a deeply important initiative to resolve the three-decades-old PKK insurgency and the parallel Kurdish problem (see our reports/opeds on the issue here). The dangers of the government taking its eye off this ball were illustrated on 3 June, when the first clash between the PKK and the Turkish army in more than two months, injuring one soldier, was reported.

However, despite the heavy emphasis on slogans calling on the prime minister to resign, the majority of the protestors do not really expect this to happen, nor do they seek a fundamental change of the Turkish regime. Rather, they want some acknowledgement or assurance, from a leader who they say seems increasingly remote after 10 years in power, that their voice is being heard and their concerns taken into consideration.

Q – How has the Turkish government reacted so far?

The reaction has been mixed. On one hand, the relatively popular President Abdullah Gül, who was elected in 2007 by the ruling party, has noted that democracy is not just about winning elections, that people should have freedom of expression and that he had taken aboard the messages of the demonstrators. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has also tried to reach out, saying the government should talk to people about the Taksim project instead of spraying tear gas at them. On 4 June, Arınç staged a notably empathetic news conference, offering to review the Taksim project in consultation with all parties.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Erdoǧan remained defiant in the first week of unrest, accusing protestors of being a “few looters” or extremist extensions of domestic and foreign opponents to his rule. He adopted a combative tone, implicitly threatening the protestors that he has hundreds of thousands of his own supporters at home in reserve. (“Don’t try to compete with me” was how he put it.) He blamed social media and particularly Twitter, a strong organizing tool of the protestors, criticizing it as “a superlative machine for lies and exaggeration” and “a plague on society”.

Whether this drama ends with a compromise or further escalation will likely define the next decade of Turkish politics, which faces a cycle of municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections over the next two years.

Q – What should the Turkish government do?

  • Engage with the mainstream protestors. Several organized groups are still camping at Gezi Park, with specific demands regarding at least the park. Their representatives should be allowed to talk to the prime minister and express their concerns, and the prime minister could announce a more inclusive process for deciding the future of this and other spaces of national significance.
  • Pull back police forces from peaceful demonstrations and gatherings, and use them only to protect property in case of vandalism, looting, and the like; discipline police who improperly fire tear-gas guns flat at crowds; announce that peaceful demonstrations can be held in Taksim Square.
  • Bring those responsible for excessive and disproportionate use of police force to justice, and offer compensation to the victims.
  • Encourage the fullest coverage possible of events on mainstream Turkish television stations. The muzzling of the news is a short-term tactic that could lose the government the long-term battle for credibility with all segments of society.
  • Use the crisis as a springboard to relaunch Turkey’s stalled process of reforms that aim at increasing individual and collective freedoms, including work on a new constitution. This is already vital to ensure success of peace talks with the PKK, and the government needs to take care of the concerns of everyone in Turkey as it addresses Kurdish grievances. The to-do list includes changing anti-terror laws to decriminalize non-violent expressions of political dissent, allowing the use of all mother languages in education and public services, administrative decentralization, and lowering the electoral threshold for political parties to five per cent instead of the current 10 per cent.
  • Prime Minister Erdoǧan would gain much greater traction with a more realistic and empathetic tone. Calling the protestors looters and extremists only escalates the anger of the many people who have already seen for themselves that most of the tens of thousands of ordinary protestors represent a cross-section of Turkish society.

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