Gezi Park Resistance in Turkey: Reasons, Lessons and Possible Consequences
I think that by now many ZNet readers know quite well the facts about Gezi Park Resistance in Turkey. Thirteen days ago a small group of resisters trying to protect one of the remaining green public spaces in Istanbul was brutally attacked by police. Afterwards the biggest civil disobedience movement Turkey has ever seen exploded, as hundreds of thousands of people took the streets in Istanbul and, to a lesser degree, in many other cities in spite of brutal massive tear gas and water cannon used by police. As the street demonstrations didn’t fade out, police forces had to withdraw, first from Istanbul’s largest square, Taksim square –adjacent to Gezi Park – then also from a park in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. However this doesn’t mean that Prime Minister R. T. Erdogan accepted the protesters’ demands. He still insists on constructing a building of his choice in the park and claims that the massive protests have been organized by illegal circles having dark aims against his democratically elected government. We have three dead (one protester killed by police for sure, a police officer fell from a bridge and a curious traffic accident where another protester died), at last half a dozen persons who lost one eye because of tear gas canisters directly shot to the face and many people seriously injured.
Immediate Reasons for the Mass Movement
I think every protester will agree that this greatest civil disobedience movement in Turkey’s history was a direct result of government’s increasingly repressive policies in recent years. We can group these repressive policies under a couple of headings:
- In recent years the conservative AKP [The Justice and Development Party] government systematically denied the cultural diversity and differences of life style preferences among Turkey’s society. Thus, one of the prominent reasons of the massive demonstrations was the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic drinks after 10:00 p.m.
- We have seen this denial of cultural and also of religious diversity when the President of the Republic gave the name of an Ottoman emperor to the third bridge on Bosphorus in Istanbul. This Ottoman emperor is famous for his massacre of thousands of Alawites [a large religious minority in Turkey whose beliefs partly inspired from other religions than Islam] and still hated by about fifteen million Alawites.
- About one year ago, the government attempted to ban abortion and although it couldn’t succeed, it has kept track of some pregnant single young women applying to hospitals, called their families and warning them about the extramarital pregnancies.
- The AKP government accelerated the redesign of big cities –especially of Istanbul, one of the world’s biggest cities– in accordance with its ambitious and relentless neo-liberal agenda. So the government began to implement huge projects transforming urban public places that ordinary citizens use very frequently into pieces of land where luxurious hotels, residences, shopping malls etc. are to be built.
Although these are some of the immediate reasons which motivated the spontaneous mass movement in Turkey, we can perhaps have a clearer image of what’s going on if we describe the power structure fed and protected by the AKP government.
Recent History of Turkish Government: The Turkish-Islamist Fascism
Please note that Turkey’s population doesn’t consist merely of Turks and orthodox Muslims. There are several ethnic minorities who are not Turks, and the biggest one is the Kurdish population, amounting to 15-20 million people [the total population of Turkey being about 72 million].
The same thing is true for the religious beliefs and sects. Although the large majority are from the “Hanafi” sect of Sunnite Islam, only a limited part of them can be called “Islamist” [by this I mean those who are willing to redesign social life according to their “imagined” version of Islam]. And there is a large Alawites minority, as I have noted, Christian minorities and non believers.
So in recent years we witnessed the escalation of an oppressive regime which can be rightly called “Turkish-Islamist fascism”. This is a power structure which elevates a curious synthesis of Turkish nationalism and a money loving Islam devoid of its deeply-rooted values such as justice, compassion for the poor, abstinence from over-consumption etc.
We can say that this Turkish-Islamist power structure has formed and strengthened with the coming to and remaining in power of the AK Party after three successive national elections. The AK Party has won 50 per cent of the total votes in June 2011 elections and thus declared its absolute power.
The secret of these unprecedented electoral successes lies in the big crisis that Turkey has passed through during the 90’s [“the dark 90’s”]. The 90’s was the scene of a violent low intensity warfare between PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] guerilla and the Turkish army, which resulted in large-scale human rights violations predominantly by security forces, about forty thousand dead and the crash of the national economy in 2001 — the biggest crisis Turkey has ever seen.
As the classical center-right and center-left parties had increasingly became mere extensions of the security state apparatus [as as “necessity” of low intensity warfare] and held responsible for the 2001 economic crisis, they lost all their credibility in the eyes of the society. The only reasonable alternative was the ex-Islamist, now conservative AK Party. This came into power with a program promising democracy and respect for the human rights and economic development on behalf the majority.
As the years went by, we were faced with another reality: the AK Party government, which has been in power for ten and a half years, indeed carried out a restoration program to protect the interests of the Turkish state as a whole. It behaved as if it was embracing the popular democratic demands of large segments of society and ended up with securing anew the legitimacy of the Turkish nation state without remaining royal to its democratic program.
This was a very interesting process and two key developments provided a secure basis for the success of the AK Party government.
First, AKP government fought a rigorous war of power with the military. The main theme was “who will govern the country?” Turkey’s political scene has frequently been designed by military coups d’état for decades. The last one, described by many as a “postmodern military coup,” took place in 1998 overthrew the Islamic Welfare Party government.
During the first half of the AK Party government period (2002-2008), some generals also tried to organize a coup d’état in the name of securing the “secular regime”. A couple of years after those militaristic attempts, they have all been arrested and brought before the court.
Of course the AK Party government struggled against the deep involvement of the Turkish military, supported and appreciated by a large majority of the society, and served to strengthen its power.
But the question which mattered at this point was this: Will the victory of AK Party government against the military bring real democracy in Turkey?
When the AK Party government, after the big electoral victory in 2011, intensified anti-democratic policies against virtually all the sections of the society which claimed their rights (Kurds, Alawites, workers, public employers, women, students), the answer to the question become clear: No.
What followed the restriction of the military’s political power was another, equally anti-democratic power center. This is the last phase of the AKP government which I describe as the Turkish-Islamist fascism.
So how can we define this new power center? Well, first of all the ruling AK Party is the representative of a new conservative-Islamist bourgeoisie, mostly composed of so-called “Anatolian tigers”, owners of medium-sized and, more or less, big manufacturing construction companies. The new power bloc consisting of the new political elite and this emerging conservative-Islamist bourgeoisie didn’t hesitate to take over the oppressive Turkish state apparatus as such and targeted to use it this time for own aims.
We saw the results of this Turkish-Islamist fascism in several areas: Until the peace and negotiation process which began in early 2013 between the imprisoned leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish authorities under the aegis of the US, thousands of Kurdish activists are put in prison [they are still there despite the “peace process”], Turkey became the largest prison for journalists, lawyers and students dissenters mostly sympathetic with the Kurdish movement but also from different venues of the opposition. The basic rights of religious communities like the Alawites were denied, women’s rights to decide having a baby or not were also denied by the government’s attempt to ban the abortion and even the liberal journalists and TV commentators criticizing government’s policies were purged from mainstream media. Thus a monolithic and single voiced big media was created.
The Economic Policy Which Sustained The New Power Bloc
The second key factor which secured the AK Party government success over the last decade was the “populist neo-liberal policy”. This was a credit boom and especially consumer credit boom like the one we have seen in many so-called “emerging economies”. This artificially provoked consumption wave, especially aroused among middle and lower-middle classes, caused a feeling that their living standards were rising and they could have at last a house, a car etc.
This consumption frenzy– together with a significant growth in Turkey’s exports mainly due to domestic cheap labor and new markets in Middle East — resulted in high rates of economic growth during the AK Party ruling period. Thus Turkey has been introduced by US and international financial institutions as “a success story”, moreover an exemplary nation for the Muslim world. Against the threat of radical Islamism fed by a strong reaction to impoverishment and American involvement in the region, Turkey would be a good alternative. It was at the same time “a Muslim, democratic and prosperous country.”
However this success story in economy, which sustained the AK Party government over a decade, ended. By 2012, the national economy rapidly began to slow down. The reason indeed was simple: the middle and lower-middle classes whose revenues were already quite low became highly in debt due to overuse of consumer credits and couldn’t spend anymore. This large-scale slowing down of the Turkish economy continued in 2013 — unemployment rises while the large majority of the population (about 70 %) lives below the poverty line.
So we had, on the one hand, a new political and economic ruling elite carrying out an increasingly oppressive policy in order to crush every opposition to secure its interests and on the other hand an economic “success story” which ended up giving place to a widening impoverishment.
The Politics of Consolidation and The Gezi Park Resistance
The Gezi Park resistance, the greatest civil disobedience movement in Turkey’s history, was the result of a recent development in the political scene. The AK Party ruling government found a solution that it applied with an increasing frequency in order to remain in power. While it has been pursuing oppressive policies on a dispersed opposition, the biggest support for the persistence of its hegemony was the economic success story. In order to remain in power, you should not elevate the living standards of the majority, it’s sufficient that you have some social strata consume more and climb the social ladder. In this way you can describe a success story and make the rest dream that soon they will also have better living standards. Unfortunately, the economic success story is over.
So the last solution that AK Party government had recourse to, was the policy of creating a continuous polarization between its conservative constituency and the secular sectors of the society. This polarization policy was enabling the AK Party government to consolidate its voter base. Against the rapid class polarization among its constituency (some people having good relations with the ruling party were wining public tenders amounting to millions dollars and thus were becoming rich in a very short time while the remaining majority were hardly maintaining their position or becoming poorer) and against the possible objections from the larger society to the harsh repressions it was applying to all the dissenters, to polarize the society around Turkish-Islamist versus liberal-secular values, was a working solution. The anti-democratic applications that I mentioned above, like the attempt to ban abortion or prohibit the sale of alcoholic drinks late at night, were all means used by AK Party government to consolidate its own conservative voter base.
What Did The Gezi Park Resistance Succeed In?
I believe that the Gezi Park resistance success was to put an end to this easy use of the policy of polarization among different sectors of Turkey’s society with different cultures, lifestyles, beliefs and values. Of course from now on, the AK Party government will still use this policy of social polarization in order to prevent a widespread discussion of the basic problems of Turkey by the mass of citizens. But it knows that it will have to pay some price in return this for ingenious tactic.
The very large demonstrations that shook Turkey during about one week were a major objection to the government’s anti-democratic, discriminatory social engineering projects aiming to polarize the society. On the other hand they were also a huge objection to creating incessantly new profit accumulation opportunities for the new bourgeoisie by destroying urban living places and nature without taking the pain of considering the opinions and objections of the ordinary citizens.
Since the ten days that police withdrew from Taksim square and Gezi Park, thousands of people from very different political backgrounds have created a free public sphere where non believers respect the religious rituals of democratic Muslim groups [one of them call themselves “anti-capitalist Muslims”, putting forward that property belongs to God, not to big corporations]. People helped each other, met the needs of each other and all the basic goods, like food, water etc. have been provided freely.
I think that if the different sectors of the social opposition [leftist groups, NGO’S, trade unions, Alawite organizations, Muslim groups opposing the government, the Kurdish movement] could draw the right lessons from this massive resistance, that is, if the dissenters of various backgrounds in Turkey learn to respect culture, religious beliefs etc. of the different social segments which constitute Turkey’s society and internalize their demands, if they try to develop a comprehensive discourse and participatory organizational forms, than the protests of Gezi Park would leave a rich experience. If rightly understood, this experience could undermine the current policy of polarization [the “divide and rule policy” indeed] of the government. It could also contribute to open the way for a struggle to be made side by side by different, but equally oppressed sections against government’s anti-democratic and cruel neo-liberal policies destructing both human beings, public urban places and the nature.
A Brief Update
The Gezi Park resisters organized a very massive rally in Taksim square on June 9. Hundreds of thousands of people participated. The solidarity committee declared the common demands of the resisters:
- Gezi Park should be left as it is and any building whatsoever shouldn’t be constructed there.
- All the protesters took in custody or detained should be released and should not be prosecuted in any way.
- The governors and police chiefs of the big cities where police had attacked the protesters should be resigned and prosecuted.
- All the public squares around Turkey that had been closed to popular rallies and demonstrations should be re-opened to secure the democratic protest right of citizens.
In spite of these very reasonable demands, Prime Minister R. T. Erdogan declared that its government will not discuss them, they are determined to redesign Gezi Park (he said that this time they would construct a “city museum” instead of a shopping mall), the protesters are manipulated by illegal groups aiming to overthrow the government and that they should evacuate Gezi Park and Taksim Square.
On the other hand, the AK Party will organize next weekend two massive rallies in Istanbul and Ankara. The aim is of course to organize a show of force and intimidate the opposing masses.
So it’s obvious that the struggle will continue until the government accepts at last some of the demands. Since the Prime Minister is escalating the tension, what will happen in coming days (or weeks) is anybody’s guess.
Please keep reading the articles concerning the Gezi Park resistance and show your international solidarity.