Whither Turkey?

CES Faculty Associate, Fatma Müge Göçek, recently returned from Turkey. She shares her insights on Turkey and Taksim Gezi Park protests in the following piece, which is first in a three part series.

On 25 May 2013, my colleague Ron Suny and I flew to Istanbul, Turkey to attend the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop (1-2 June 2013) that has been taking place since he was assassinated in front of his newspaper on 19 January 2007. We were invited to report on the activities of the Workshop on Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS) that promoted the generation of new knowledge through the joint collaboration of scholars working on Turkish and Armenian issues. Even though the 2013 annual workshop was very successful, much of the attention was drawn away by the anti-government protests that took a violent turn on 31 May 2013 at Taksim Gezi Park, a short distance away from the Bankalar Caddesi where the conference was taking place.

This was an Istanbul district I knew well since I was born and spent the first twelve years of my life in Tepebasi, also near Taksim.  Yet the whole setting was now very different from the politically muted Cold War years of my childhood.

The protest initially started with the intent to prevent the removal of the centuries-old trees from the Taksim Gezi Park, with the intent to transform it into yet another neoliberal space promoting consumption. Until then, the park had been one of the few green spaces that acted like the lungs of downtown Istanbul, and that could also be accessed by all citizens rather than the few chosen moneyed customers. In addition, it was rumored that the Ottoman military barracks once housed at Taksim Gezi Park were going to be rebuilt to serve as a city museum. The manifest intent of the socially conservative Justice and Development Party (hereafter AKP) government was innocent: to further beautify the city by creating a renewed park and a city museum. Yet the latent objective was not as innocent: this government move marked the culmination of a neo-liberal spree that had literally created 11 malls within a short time span, tearing down culturally-meaningful old movie theatres and pudding shops and replacing them with cement blocks advocating constant consumption in the process. The military barracks had also once been historically significant as the headquarters of the ultimately unsuccessful 1909 conservative reaction to the 1908 Young Turk revolution. Since AKP traced its historical lineage to this reaction rather than the Young Turk movement that ultimately established the secular Turkish Republic, it seemed like AKP in general and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in particular wanted to rewrite republican history from a new point of origin. From this point on, AKP as a political actor will be replaced by Prime Minister Erdoğan; this is so because during the last decade of AKP rule (2002-13), Erdoğan increasingly concentrated power in his person alone, leading many to accuse him of ‘turning into a sultan.’

Yet the Gezi Park also marked the culmination of prior conservative policy moves, moves that ultimately mobilized general discontent into a protest movement. Among these were policies Erdoğan personally advocated, carrying some into law with amazing speed. One such proposal (now approved into law by President Abdullah Gül) stated that alcoholic beverages could not be advertised on social media and could not be sold after 10 pm. Upon being asked to comment on the proposal, Erdoğan stated that he would consider all those who had had a single drink in their lives as well as those who opposed the law for intervening with their life style to be ‘alcoholics.’ In the process, he dismissed former republican leaders for being ‘a couple of drunkards.’ Probably one of the most contentious recent government moves accompanying the ‘alcohol fury’ was the building of the third bridge across the Bosporus on yet another green area, further cutting into the lungs of the city. Almost to add insult to injury, Erdoğan then announced that he had decided, after a brief discussion within his inner circle, to name it the ‘Yavuz Sultan Selim’ bridge, after the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim, best known for conquering the Arabian peninsula and Egypt and for massacring tens of thousands of Alewite Shiis in Asia Minor in the process.  Hence all these factors escalated and radicalized those opposing such developments.

The initial peaceful protest that started mid-May was met by severe police force, with pepper gas literally aimed at the face of the protesters at close range. The severity of government reaction, captured and distributed through smart phones, Facebook and Twitter galvanized others, leading tens of thousands to go to Taksim square in support.  In addition, thousands in other Turkish cities and overseas engaged in similar protest movements in solidarity. The popular reaction led the government to withdraw the police force, only to escalate the number of protesters who kept arriving every night in large numbers. And this was fully a new social movement in that it united all parts of the political spectrum from unionists, political activists, non-governmental organizations as well as many college and high school students.

This civil unrest has now been going on for two weeks. Erdoğan’s reaction revealed his innate beliefs: he first withdrew the police when casualties escalated, then claimed all protesters were plunderers, and then argued they were infiltrated by marginal dangerous forces intent on destroying Turkey. Hence, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge this was a spontaneous protest movement, always trying to locate foreign and domestic provocateurs among them. Perhaps the most telling was his statement that ‘he could barely contain the fifty percent who had voted for him’ from taking to the streets.  This statement starkly reveals Erdoğan’s conception of democracy: he sees himself as the political representative of not all Turkish citizens, but the fifty percent that voted for him, a numerical majority he sees as enabling him to do whatever he sees fit.

Yet the health of democracies is not judged by how well they meet the demands of the majority. After all, since ‘demos‘ ‘cratos‘ stands for the ‘power’ of the ‘people,’ in this political context, the power of the majority is easily met. The ultimate challenge is to acknowledge and ensure the rights of all its citizens, especially the rights of minorities that are most vulnerable to populist pressures. Rather than acting on this premise, Erdoğan instead set out to demonstrate and presumably reinstate his political power by publicly parading the populist majority. He planned two public ‘counter’ demonstrations manned by his AKP followers in Ankara on 15 June and in Istanbul on 16 June 2013. After meeting with some of the Gezi protestors, he also proposed that what will happen at the park to be determined through a ‘referendum,’ or a ‘plebiscite,’ both measures that would display the numerical strength of the majority.

Such display of political power is fickle. Erdoğan wants to get AKP followers on the streets this weekend in Ankara and Istanbul to demonstrate his political power. He may accomplish what he endeavors. Yet what takes place, albeit peaceful or not, could just as quickly undermine his current political hold. Such destabilization and ensuing polarization between pro and anti government forces would then lead Turkey down an uncertain, undemocratic path.  It would be uncertain because Erdoğan would have played all his cards; it would be undemocratic because with no powerful political opposition in place, only two political actors would benefit from the ensuing melee, the radical political fringe or, more probably, the military. If there is a military intervention, Turkey would have to start the democratization process of removing the military from politics all over again. I still cannot believe that Prime Minister Erdoğan is willing to take such a risk, one that would undermine all that he and his followers have worked for in the last decade. And that is why I wanted to share my concerns with you.

Fatma Müge Göçek is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. 

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