Protests and Politics in Gezi Park, Istanbul
Large-scale protests broke out last night in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Protesters gathered earlier in the week to demonstrate against the government’s announcement that it would destroy Gezi Park—one of the few green places left not only in Taksim, but Istanbul in general—and replace it with a shopping mall. When the demonstrators appeared, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the government would follow through with its plans regardless of resistance. But the police response to the protests was radical, involving large amounts of tear gas and overly excessive use of water cannons, and a Turkish public both disgusted with this all-too-routine reaction to resistance and tired of its government’s flagrant abuses of power took to the streets—not just in Taksim, where something like 200,000 people marched Friday night, but across the country. In my own corner of Istanbul, the sleepy residential area of Merdivenkoy, an outraged public went to the windows and shouted for Erdoğan to resign, for their neighbors to wake up. They banged pots and pans, blared leftist music, got out on the streets and waved flags at cars honking as they sped by.
There are things to consider. Turkey was founded as a secular republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after their war for independence against the Allies. Turkey also participated in World War I, then part of the larger yet crumbling Ottoman Empire (often dubbed the “sick man of Europe”), an Islamist monarchy. Post-World War I, Allied forces (primarily Greece) occupied the country with strongholds in Constantinople and Smyrna (now Istanbul and Izmir), and a group of Turkish nationalists in Ankara claimed legitimacy to rule. In the years following the founding of the republic on October 29, 1923, Atatürk instituted radical social reforms; he removed religion from government, instituted a multi-party electorate system, switched to a Latin-based alphabet, and drove to increase higher education and literacy. While the population has remained devoutly religious with something like 99% of the public polling as being Muslim, most Turks have been adamant about maintaining a secular government.
But of course there’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister and head of AKP (English: Justice & Development Party). The party was founded in 2001 and won general elections the following year with Abdullah Gül as prime minister. A referendum allowed Erdoğan to take his place, and he’s been in power ever since. AKP’s right-wing stunts are shameful. Turkey holds the world record for number of journalists in jail; civil liberties (particularly free speech) have slowly been chipped away; art, media, and the internet are censored, restricted, and monitored; and various bills working to establish Islam as the rule of law have been instituted. Among Erdoğan’s more recent proposals has been restricted sale and consumption of alcohol, closing of learning centers (dersehaneler), and the possible switch to a state system gerrymandering the votes in a way incredibly favorable to AKP. The infamous Ergenekon investigation is a mockery; journalists, lawyers, writers, academics, and military officials have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the government, the most recent result of this being several top military officers finding their way to prison. Most of the proceedings and the supposed evidence of this conspiracy or the group itself is shrouded in mystery, so much so it’s difficult to believe such an organization exists. There is increasingly hostile rhetoric directed at Syria and al-Assad, with volleys exchanged at the border between the two countries, with many people holding the belief Erdoğan might be following certain directives received from the West. In short, the party and its leader have and continue to diminish the power of others while enriching and expanding their own.
Election results, however, pause the zealous champion of the protesters as the voice of the majority of Turks. Since Erdoğan’s inauguration, his numbers have only increased, gathering 21,000,000 votes in the 2011 general elections (~49% of the total votes cast) that saw an 83% voter turnout. He crushed opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the CHP (Republican People’s Party) who took a little more than 11,000,000 (~26%). Even the geographic district wherein Istanbul lies voted AKP in this election, with only seven districts voting CHP. Still, the annual demonstrations in Istanbul and Izmir on October 29th bring out millions of people, and the city has not slept since the instigation Friday night. Just this morning 40,000 people crossed the Bosphorous Bridge to go to Taksim after the metrobus service was cancelled to prevent more demonstrators from joining the protests.
Those protests have been incredibly peaceful, and police actions are completely unwarranted, irrational, and indiscriminate. People holding hands, singing, or sitting and reading were teargassed. Women walking with their children—duly attempting to avoid the protests—were blasted with water cannons. Elected senators, university students, and regular working people were shot with rubber bullets. Even street dogs haven’t been exempted from violent state actions. Predictably, though, neither Erdoğan nor his Western cheerleaders will back down. Erdoğan, in a speech given this morning, asked why environmentalists didn’t raise a stink when he tore down a park to build a university in his days as mayor of Istanbul. A Turkish version of George Bush II, it’s difficult to discern whether he’s merely oblivious or has a debilitating ability to gauge situations. Construction at the park has been indefinitely delayed due to the protests, yet the protests not only continue, but grow. His attempt to shift blame and respond to a single issue neglects the general criticism the movement has come to stand for, and his steadfast iron-fisted demeanor only stokes more anger.
It’s not clear whether any of this will be successful, though developments are interesting: construction on the shopping mall has been delayed, both the chief of police and mayor of Istanbul have been dismissed, police from Antalya are being flown in as the number in Istanbul is not sufficient, some of those police have defected and joined the civilians, the military has non-violently joined the side of the protesters by distributing materials to combat teargas effects, several companies have decided to abstain from opening stores in the future mall, and satellite protests are occurring in cities across the world. It’s possible that these demonstrations, taking place at all hours in all places, will cause Erdoğan to resign his post. However, he’s an obstinate leader unaccustomed to such blatant challenges to his authority, so I have a hard time imagining he’ll back down without a rather bruised and bloodied fight. It’s likely Erdoğan will emerge victorious from this conflict, restoring order and retaining power. But that order will merely be a facade masking the boiling rage lurking beneath, that power forever checked and challenged, a major blow to the stiff and stalwart persona he attempts to convey.