Where is Turkey Headed? (Part 1)

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 second in a three part series.

I wanted to share with you my thoughts on what could be identified as the ‘Gezi syndrome’ in Turkey. I will discuss two dimensions of the syndrome, namely its origins and then future trajectories. It is much easier to analyze the origins since one can identify certain patterns retrospectively, much harder to make future predictions because there are too many variables at play right now. As such, it is almost impossible to conjecture how these variables will interact with each other, strengthening some possibilities at the expense of others. Still, such predictions based on systematic analysis are the part and parcel of the social sciences so I will plunge in and make predictions as well.

I think that three significant ‘e-factors’ united to generate the Gezi syndrome: (Prime Minister) Erdoğan, economy and education.

Why do I choose Erdoğan over the Justice and Development Party (hereafter AKP) in government that he belongs to? Due to two factors, first, Erdoğan’s becoming the ‘single strongest man’ within the party during the course of decade-long AKP rule, and second, his approaching Istanbul — where he was born and where he started his political life as its mayor — very differently than almost all other politicians who are mostly of Ankara or Anatolian origin. Erdoğan has a special emotional attachment to Istanbul; I think that if he were asked ‘what is great about Ankara (the capital where he has to serve)?’ he would secretly reply ‘its road leading to Istanbul.’ During the last decade, Erdoğan spent so much of his spare time in Istanbul that some anxiously wondered if he intended to make Istanbul the capital once again (as it had been during the Ottoman empire). As for being the single most powerful man within AKP, this likelihood has always been the greatest challenge of all leaders because a leader starts to dig his own political grave the moment he commences to discard the critical voices around him. I think all these factors coalesced, leading Erdoğan to assume a very emotional attitude toward the Gezi syndrome. And it is a truism that the inclusion of emotions in politics always escalates the danger threshold because of lack of predictability. In short, the question that guided Erdoğan in his reactions was the following: “How could they take My City away from Me?”

The economy is a significant factor because it almost single-handedly carried AKP to government. Indeed, during the last decade, AKP liberalized the Turkish economy by releasing it from heavy-handed state control, and by integrating it to the global economy. The subsequent wealth increase enabled AKP to win elections, leading the party to measure its success almost exclusively in economic terms. It was telling that AKP’s initial reaction to Gezi centered around two material mantras: ‘we increased the income of this country three and a half fold in a decade’ in general, and ‘you are preventing people from going to work and earning their livelihood’ in particular. One also needs to underline that fact that during this decade, large capital located in Istanbul was gradually forced to support AKP through either large economic concessions (carrot) or direct and indirect pressures (stick): the ensuing large capital that was once loyal to the old state and now to the new government ended up controlling the media to such a degree that it initially almost entirely censored what was happening at Gezi. After personally witnessing what was going on 31 May 2013, I was shocked to come home only to see that the violent events were only covered by two out of the more than twenty television stations. The news coverage the following day was just as spotty. It should be noted that the most significant assumption of the neoliberal approach under-girding all is that material interests will always prevail over all else. This assumption may indeed hold in the short term, but in the long run — for instance after a decade, other priorities start to emerge: those who no longer have to worry about their economic well-being begin to think, look around, analyze their environment, and get the desire to have a say in what transpires. Hence the question that started to guide them became the following: “How could they take My City away from Me?”

Moving onto education, according to Sırma Demir Şeker’s 2011 findings, the years 2000-2009 witnessed the escalation in literacy rate from 84 to 88.7 percent and available schooling rate from 61 to 71.7 percent. I should underline that such an increase had much more impact on the population aged 15 and below. During the same time period, once again according to Sırma Demir Şeker’s findings, the gross domestic product increased two and a half fold, thereby leading the new, educated generations concentrated in major cities to not only have the education, but also the economic means to acquire and maximize cutting edge communication technology. Hence educational and economic factors surged while political participation remained limited… According to social movement literature, the most significant characteristic of ‘new social movements’ emerging at such conjunctures is the coalescence around new visions such as environmentalism, visions that trespass traditional political divides. Indeed, the manner in which leftists, rightists and nationalists came together with soccer fans of various stripes at Gezi reflects its new social movement characteristic, making Erdoğan’s attempts to find ‘dangerous’ political parties behind the movement all the more outdated. I am sure that there are indeed fringe political groups, militants among these protestors as the government alleges, but I still think that the major political actors spearheading it are nevertheless drawn from among this young, educated and urban population. Yes, their proportion may not add up to fifty percent of the population as Erdoğan continually points out, but their technological control over the social media and their cultural capital in comparison to the rest of the population certainly escalate their national and global impact to above fifty percent. As this educated youth started to look around, assessing the environment within which they live, they reacted to the consumption-oriented democracy where only consumers seemed to be all equal; they then organized peacefully and were forced to take to the streets after they were met with the very brutal force of the police. I was at Gezi last week; after seeing the spark in the protestors’ eyes and the confidence in their posture, I am convinced of one thing: this was probably their first political engagement, but it is not going to be their last one. And in delving into such political engagement, the question these 16-25 years old youths asked was the following: “How could they take My City away from Me?”

Hence I think that the ‘Gezi syndrome’ emerged as a Prime Minister from Istanbul who put his emotions before all else reacted to what his decade-long government had successfully produced in the context of the economy and education, a consumption-oriented neoliberal economy on the one side and a young, educated, urban populace on the other.

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

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