Movements@Manchester

© Jordi Bernabeu Flikr CC

© Jordi Bernabeu, Flikr CC

Once again thousands of protesters in Turkey took to the streets in mid-March in order to commemorate the youngest and most recent victim of police violence during the Gezi Protests of last year. The 14 year-old Berkin Elvan was hit by a tear gas canister and had been in a coma for the past 8 months. His death brought back the collective spirit of the protests that had been, with some exceptions, slumbering since last summer. 

Now, just a few days before the local elections – fiercely promoted as a referendum about the future of Turkey – the question of who the people on the streets are, and the nature of their interests and demands, is once again of particular interest.

One of the most common arguments in the great number of articles and books that have been published since the beginning of the protests is that the majority of the participants of the Gezi protests were unaffiliated to any kind of organisation or party. This, no doubt, makes a strong political argument: The notion of the protests being a spontaneous reaction to state violence and injustice provides the uprisings with particular legitimacy. “The people are on the streets”. “The people” seem to be party-less, without an ideology, impartial; their reaction an act of moral objection, rather than party rationale. But, who was really on the streets?

 

# The 50%

In contrast to the Occupy slogan “We are the 99%”, the Gezi slogan was “We are the 50%”. The 50% refers to the percentage of votes the governing AKP received in the last elections (46%) and indicates that those who were on the streets were the other 50%: A strange coalition, at first even including some members of the right-wing party (MHP), the Kemalist party (CHP), a number of socialist and other left-wing groups, and members of the pro-Kurdish party (BDP) whose cautious approach has been highly interrogated from within the left[1]. Photographs widely circulated at the time underlined and promoted the image of unity of right, left and centre.

I am not doubting that the majority of the protesters – as frequently argued[2] – had never taken part in protests before or that they were neither formal members of any form of political organisation nor had elected previously.  However, this does not mean that the protesters had no affiliations with the main oppositional parties. The sea of Turkish national flags and flags portraying an effigy of Atatürk at the protests is a sign of the dominance of pro-CHP demonstrators.

Although the protests have over time gained the image of an uprising against a despotic head of state, especially with the recent éclat around the uncovering of major corruption, they cannot be understood without acknowledging the historic secular-Islamist divide which is central to the political landscape in Turkey. The centre-left parties had long time been painting a picture of an AKP that was planning on installing an anti-democratic, fundamentalist Shari’a-system. Consequently, the alcohol-bans and warnings against ‘immoral’ behaviour in public, which occurred shortly before the protests began, compounded the unpopular involvement of the Turkish government in Syria. The rapid accumulation of these grievances drew mass protest to the streets, particularly when police violence became overt. However, the historic secular-Islamist divide remains one of the strongest factors behind the anti-government protests and unites the majority of them as CHP supporters.

 

# Not Istanbul Alone

This is not at all to say the protests were homogeneous. In this respect, it is crucial to note that protests did not occur in Istanbul alone – something the focus of the international media often occludes. From May until mid-July, protests took place in nearly all larger towns and cities throughout the West and South of Turkey. The participants of demonstrations and protests in these places differed from those in Taksim and even within the large metropolitan cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, the composition of participants differed according to the different districts of town the protests occurred in. While in the city centre supporters e.g. of the Kemalist Youth Organisation (TGB) dominated the streets, in districts such as Gazi Mahallesi in Istanbul and Tuzlucayır in Ankara mainly Alevis and Kurds were involved.

 

# Reviewing the Role of Organisations

The image of the uprising of the apolitical, party-less protester also has to be questioned with regard to the heavy street fighting during the protests. Although the majority of participants were not members of pre-established organisations, it would be wrong to neglect the role of organised groups in this respect. Due to their past experience in countering police violence, members of radical left-wing groups were initially more involved on the front lines building barricades while first-time demonstrators constituted the masses behind them. In this sense, they were also influential in passing on this necessary knowledge to the other less experienced protesters. It would be wrong to assume that the first-time demonstrators alone managed to persist in this long uprising.

Obviously, the question of organisation in these protests is a highly delicate one as the government is all too keen on convicting any form of organised instigator under Anti-Terrorism Law. Just recently, the state prosecutor filed a case against the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a network of architects, city planners and activists which formed against the gentrification of the inner-city of Istanbul, accusing them being a terror organisation which instigated the protests. It goes without saying that these accusations have no grounds. Any closer look at the participants of the protests illustrates with ease their political distance from the Platform.

 

 # So, where is the Left?

While the main questions of the initial trigger-event, the protests against the cutting down of the trees in Gezi Park, centered around gentrification and the demand to widen participation of the population in decision-making procedures, the dominance of CHP-supporters in the following protests limited the main slogan to “Step down Tayyip (Erdoğan)!”. Critique against the government, police violence and the complicit media were voiced, but demands for democratization were subdued under this overarching slogan.  The direct democratic impetus of the ‘forums’ that developed parallel to the protests and are still ongoing did crystallise as demands and, therefore, remained the practice of a few. Especially from a Kurdish perspective, this focus on ousting Erdoğan from power led to fear of an alternative even more reactionary coalition of Kemalists and the right-wing, which would impede the development of a Kurdish peace process or a shift towards democratization.

Only the more recent developments seem to have led to some change in the public discourse in this respect. The reaction of the AKP-government to the corruption scandal including the relocation of hundreds of state prosecutors and police officers, the obstruction of the press and finally the closure of Twitter has clearly revealed the anti-democratic face of Erdoğan and the AKP. As a consequence the AKP has lost significant credibility in the peace negotiations. Furthermore, the rhetoric of CHP has shifted to promoting their party as one against corruption and for freedom and democracy. The atmosphere is tense: people are expecting riots if the ruling AKP does not decisively lose these elections. Polls, however, predict the AKP to win.



[1] The BDP was strongly criticized for not having called their party members to the protests in fear of endangering the newly commenced peace process.

[2] The private research institute KONDA conducted a survey in Istanbul in the heat of the protests. The results are accessible in Turkish online: http://t24.com.tr/files/GeziPark%C4%B1Final.pdf

AKP, democracy, Elections, Erdoğan, Gezi Park, Istanbul, protests, Turkey, Twitter ban, We are the 50%