Taksim: The Public’s Square

Amnesty International.

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest contribution by Jonathan Endelman, PhD student in Sociology at Yale University)

Ostensibly, the protests in Turkey began after the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to place a shopping center and luxury housing complex in the Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul, an historical gathering point for protest movements of the Turkish left. However, the current controversy over the proposed shopping center in Taksim square in Istanbul is a much larger matter than a construction project. As many analysts have recently pointed out, it was never really about the trees. What we are seeing today is nothing less than a power struggle between two opposing sides with radically different visions for the country’s future.

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Will the Gezi Protests Change Politics in Turkey?

Nearly a week ago, on 28th May, the first people gathered at Gezi Park, Istanbul, to protest the demolition of the park to accommodate a shopping mall and a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks. However, by Friday, the protest had already reached massive proportions – police used tear gas and water gas to disperse protestors, a number of people were taken in police custody and 3G was blocked in the area around the Taksim Square. By Saturday, access to Twitter and local internet was temporarily cut off, and protests had spread to other major cities such as Izmir and Ankara.

Gezi Protests

While an Istanbul Administrative court stayed the construction of the Ottoman-era Topçu Barracks on Friday, a number of other reasons probably exacerbated the protests – among them, the issue of naming of a third bridge over the Bosphorus after Yavuz Sultan Selim, an Ottoman ruler known for his massacre of the Anatolia Alevis, the controversial recent bill on the sale, consumption and advertising of alcohol, and most importantly, the excessive use of police force during the protests.

Despite the strong crackdown beginning Friday afternoon, protestors kept increasing in numbers, and by Saturday, a large chunk of protestors were chanting for Erdoğan to resign. What do these protests mean for Erdoğan’s support base?

Şule Kulu at Today’s Zaman, one of Turkey’s largest newspapers, argues that “Erdoğan has shot himself in the foot” due to the violent nature of the crackdown. She further argues that many of Erdoğan’s supporters united with those in the opposition due to their common ground in opposing the Taksim project and police brutality. However, Mustafa Aykol, a renowned Turkish journalist and author of Islam Without Extremes, is of the view that, “Erdoğan’s support base is still intact,” and not everybody agrees with the protestors. However, he argues that Erdoğan needs to acknowledge that, “the ballot box is not the only thing that counts in a truly participatory democracy,” which seems to be sorely lacking in Turkey.

Most importantly perhaps may be the lack of a credible opposition. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for the last 12 years, and  Erdoğan is the only prime minister in Turkish history to win three consecutive general elections and receive more votes each time. In the 2011 elections, the AKP secured almost double the number of votes than the opposition party,  the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s oldest political party established by Atatürk in 1923.

Further, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP has not shown much initiative on two main issues facing Turkey: the peace process with the PKK and the civil war in Syria. With regard to the former, the party has refused to take any responsibility for the solution to the Kurdish question, when in fact, a recent poll shows that two-thirds of CHP voters back the Kurdish peace process. Earlier last month, when 30 deputies from the CHP’s reformist wing released a declaration supporting the peace process with the PKK, others from the party’s nationalist wing condemned this stance, a move which many might see as evidence of rift between the party and an inability to take a stance of pressing issues. The party’s Syrian policy has also been criticized because the CHP has yet to condemn Assad’s policy of targeting his own citizens. However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s decision on Saturday to cancel his party’s rally in Istanbul in order to keep the protest apolitical and not hijack the movement for political gains was appreciated by many.

It is still too early to speculate on the next general elections. But in the face of a democratic government acting in an undemocratic manner, and the dividends from AKP’s economic success (which propelled them to power in the first place) being distributed unequally across society, one thing is clear: even if a weakening of Erdoğan’s support base does take place, any significant electoral shifts are unlikely to occur in the 2014 elections in the absence of a credible and effective opposition.

For more on the Turkish protests, follow Suparna on Twitter.