Urban struggles: Activist citizenship in South-East Europe III

Kıvanç Atak
Gezi protests

Why are they so rebellious? Preliminary observations on the uprisings in Turkey

The Gezi protests came as surprise to many observers of Turkish politics, both inside and outside. Despite unresolved issues in its domestic sphere such as the Kurdish question, as well as its contested path toward democratic consolidation, Turkey has been considered as a “model” of political stability and a “success story” of economic growth. What brought masses of people to the streets then? Is it yet another instance of Kemalist outcry – as in the case of Republican Meetings in 2007 – against the Sunni-conservative government in power? There are clear signs that this is not simply the case. The strong presence of the Kemalist currents notwithstanding, the protests reach for a broader political audience.

Everything started with a government-sponsored municipal project to transform the central Taksim Square in Istanbul. As part of the project, the municipality was planning to construct a shopping mall (or a hotel or both) based on the replication of an old military barracks, Topçu Kışlası, which was destroyed in the 1940s. When the bulldozers entered the park in the last days of May, a few dozen young protesters blocked the vehicles and started to camp inside the park. The reaction by the police was extreme: they raided the park early in the morning, set the tents on fire, and used massive amounts of teargas and pressurized water against the growing crowd of protesters. The brutal police intervention galvanized thousands of citizens to an unexpected level. The repercussions soon turned into one of the most sustained and diffused protest waves in the history of the Turkish Republic. By the same token, the protests laid bare the scope of state violence that exists in the hands of a highly militarised riot police.

Several observers have concluded that the Gezi protests are yet another episode of Kemalist resentment with the incumbent AKP government that has been in office for the last 12 years. To some, the protests are analogous to the “Republican Meetings” in 2007 when a chain of mass meetings were staged in several towns in the country against the AKP’s hold on power. Even though the forms of protest in the two episodes differ from each other, the analogy relies on the assumption that in both cases it is the urban-secular “white Turks” concentrated in the western provinces that drive the mobilizations.

It is absolutely true that the Kemalist allergy to the AKP is one of the major components of the Gezi protests. But it is equally true that this is not the only one. Two things refute the simple association of the Gezi protests with an old-fashioned Kemalist syndrome.

First, the Republican Meetings were objecting to the very legitimacy of a legitimate government just because the latter challenged and undermined the military-bureaucratic tutelage with its pro-Islamist political vision. In this sense, the meetings were defending the Kemalist status quo as they were comfortably flirting with the military establishment. As regards the Gezi protests, this is definitely not the case. It is hard to deny that active participants and sympathisers of the protests find their roots in those social segments that are already alienated from the AKP’s mainstream. But this does not adduce to a grand Kemalist coalition embedded in the mobilizations.

Thus follows the second point: despite occasional tensions in the course of the events, different political fractions managed to stand together. Indeed, the protests proved almost a unique experience whereby pro-Atatürk and pro-Öcalan voices, let alone others, are raised next to each other.

If the protests brought together various political groupings, one may wonder what they reveal about the general political climate in Turkey. Is there widespread popular discontent with the government? In fact, the protests erupted at a moment when the AKP was enjoying the climax of its power. Hence, the leading cadres of the party and above all, Prime Minister Erdoğan, are perplexed by the scale and resilience of the uprisings. Having never faced a real challenge to his authority, and excessively self-confident of his popular support (that approached 50 per cent), Erdoğan immediately condemned the protests as a grand political plot against his government. In the last ten years of his impressive political career, he has managed to appeal not only to the traditional right-wing constituency but also to the liberal elites, especially in his commitment to outmanoeuvre the military. The AKP, as his political enterprise, was celebrated as a pioneer of democratisation and liberalisation due to a number of promising reforms. In the international arena, he was politically and economically promoted as a moderate leader, notably by the United States, and seen as a reliable ally that would ensure stability in the region.

However, as Erdoğan built a growing power base in consecutive elections, his initially conciliatory rhetoric shifted to an exclusionary political discourse. Recently, there has been the imprisonment of journalists, activists, academicians, and students, as well as large-scale police operations against almost every oppositional bloc. This has been coupled with a rising tide of societal engineering enshrined in the top-down fabrication of educational policies, urban projects, and law making. Erdoğan’s direct involvement in local affairs also started to give the impression that no political decision can be made against his personal will. Meanwhile, he constantly kept insulting students, labour unions, environmentalists and others who were publicly protesting against AKP’s policies in one way or another.

The attempt to demolish Gezi Park came to symbolise the AKP’s majoritarian democracy which seems at the mercy of Erdoğan’s whims. The fierce repression by the police came to represent the incumbents’ intolerance towards dissent. It also functioned as a “flashpoint” that sparked further protests. What needs to be emphasised is that the protests did not become centralised both in organisational and spatial terms. Even though the international media focused attention on Taksim and Gezi Park, several towns including Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Mersin and others witnessed day-and-night marches and gatherings in various neighbourhoods. The same holds true for the coercive police strategies used, especially in Ankara.

Many observers have drawn parallels between the Gezi protests and the Arab Spring mobilisations, Occupy protests, and the crisis mobilisations in Southern Europe. But the protests in Turkey differ from these in certain respects. Unlike the Arab Spring mobilisations, they are not directed against the very foundations of an autocratic regime. They are also not driven by economic grievances. Yet what the Gezi protests have in common with these is the increasing public conviction in the power of protest. The most obvious evidence is the politicisation of the previously un-politicised. Both the deep engagement of the 90s generation and the participation of the people with no activist record are unusual in Turkey’s map of contentious politics.

What may follow the uprisings? As it was hard to predict the eruption of the protests it is no less difficult to anticipate their political end. Still, a couple of assumptions can be made. To begin with, the AKP does not seem to have lost support in substantial terms. The vast majority of its constituency do not seem to be disturbed by the rising authoritarian rhetoric of their leader, nor by the repressive handling of public dissent. It should be remembered that the majority of the population does not inform themselves through alternative news sources via the Internet and social media. It is more likely that mainstream media channels, television and newspapers are the main sources of information, many of which almost unconditionally support the AKP government.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s credibility has been considerably damaged from an international point of view. This may have far-reaching political and economic consequences in the future. In the last three weeks, the stock market underwent successive dramatic falls. But the fact that Turkey’s economic “success” is largely fostered by financial investments is a caveat for the potential effects of massive outflows of money from the country’s economic zone. This is not an unlikely scenario if Erdoğan carries on with his aggression and alienates economic capital from his political business. Economic concerns have proved one of the strongest indicators of voting behaviour in Turkey- any sign of economic instability would affect the political preferences of the electorate. 

With respect to the protesting groups, gaining political experience through action is one of the most valuable outcomes of the uprisings. At present, people are organising public forums in different neighbourhoods and discussing issues in a pluralistic environment. Currently, there is a multiplicity of organisations, but it is not entirely clear in what direction this organisational fragmentation may evolve. At any rate, the political journey of the protests will depend, on the one hand, on government reaction. So far, the latter has proved extremely unpredictable and markedly repressive. This has contributed to the solidification of the resistance, yet further repression may also curb the strength of the resistance. But this will also depend on the political strategies and capabilities of the participant groups.

For more on citizenship, nationalism and minorities in Turkey see "Never Turkish enough: Struggles over citizenship and national identity in Turkey" by Kerem Oktem.

Kıvanç Atak is Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute in Florence.