The contest to define Turkey

Are the current protests in Turkey the product of democratisation that has taken place over the last decade?

Turkey protests
The current protest is not the first public contention between different perspectives in defining Turkey - it is the latest evolution of a process that has spanned over the past decade [AFP]

On May 27, a small group of people initiated a sit-in to prevent the uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, a small park in central Istanbul, Turkey. Uprooting the trees was part of a plan to redesign the nearby Taksim Square. The persistence of the demonstrators led the police to use water cannon and tear gas in their attempts to evict them starting from May 31. This approach backfired, and the protest movement gained momentum by drawing in large numbers of people of different political persuasions.

What had previously been a sit-in of a handful people morphed into a larger protest movement, encompassing diverse groups of people with disparate aims and demands.

A few pundits rushed to describe the event as the “Turkish Spring”, and asserted that the protests were precipitated by the government’s repressive – perhaps even authoritarian – behaviours and policies. To substantiate their arguments, they referred to the recent alcohol law, which was approved by the parliament the preceding week.

While the government claimed that the new legislation was similar in nature to the alcohol regulations in countries such as the US, France and Sweden, and motivated by health and safety considerations, the opposition contended that the level of alcohol consumption in Turkey was already significantly lower than in the countries mentioned, and as such this bill was driven by ideological considerations.

These claims and picture beg some questions: “Who are the protesters and what is this protest all about?” and “Should these protests be treated as a single incident or situated within a historical-political context?” Before delving into these aspects of the issue, some clarifications are warranted.

First, throughout the events, the government has failed to adopt appropriate and coherent language. The lack of clear information sharing with the public on the redesigning of the park culminated in confusion and an information void, which was eagerly filled by social media speculations and uninformed third parties.

While initially protesters justified their protest as preventing the uprooting of trees for the construction of a shopping mall, some officials of Turkey’s ruling AK Party claim that plans to build a mall never existed. Erdogan himself, however, reportedly said that the ground floor of the replica barracks development could serve as a shopping centre or museum. This is a testament to the government’s failure to communicate with the public throughout the event.

Second, the police’s disproportionate reaction and the excessive use of water cannon and tear gas have had deleterious effects by escalating the protest into a confrontational security issue.

Who are the protesters?

There are, broadly speaking, three main groups in these protests: first, a group of environmentalists and non-politically affiliated ordinary citizens; second, supporters (secular and Kemalists) of the main opposition party, the Republican People Party (CHP); and finally, far-left and neo-nationalist groups. That said, however, one online poll said that most protesters did not affiliate themselves with any particular group.

The first group initiated the protests, their slogans and demands were essentially environmentalist, and their numbers relatively small. The second group is more numerous, and actively mobilised the masses by banging pans and pots in protest. The third group consists of radical groups such as the far-left Turkey Communist Party and neo-nationalist groups such as the Turkish Youth Union (TGB) and the Turkey’s Workers Party (IP), and have allegedly engaged in acts of vandalism and arson. 

Some analysts eagerly described these protests as the culmination of creeping authoritarianism in Turkey. However, a better examination of Turkey’s record over a decade would find it to be the exact opposite. These protests are precisely the product of the democratisation that has taken place over the past decade. Previously, the demands and interests of the secularists and the Kemalists were represented by military and civilian bureaucracy and big business in Istanbul.  

The government’s strict defence of these establishment groups usually resulted in the infringement of the rights of other segments of society – namely the pious segment. This is because the staunchly secular Kemalist establishment regarded itself as the sole possessor of the authority to regulate the lifestyle and the limits of the political sphere.


Turkey Protests

However, what we have been witnessing with the current protests is that ordinary citizens are becoming actors in their own right, with their own demands and liberties, not delegating this task to undemocratic and unaccountable institutions. This has happened only because the military was sent back to the barracks and the political sphere purged of the elements of the tutelage system.

Citizens have now become the principal actor on major issues, and Turkey’s democracy has become noisy – a development that needs to be cherished by anyone who cares about democracy and citizen empowerment.

Sensitive topics such as the Kurdish issue, the peace process, the definition of citizenship, state-religion relations, and foreign and security issues can no longer be settled by the National Security Council without input from citizens, as had been the case for so long. People in a democracy need to be consulted and convinced, which is why the AK Party has been lauded for conducting monthly surveys on these issues.

The first public contention

The dominant slogans of the protests are testament to this contention of defining a “new” Turkey. As expected, “resign Erdogan” has been the most-heard chant. But another popular chant was neither about the park, the environment nor the alcohol bill. Rather, it has been “hepimiz Mustafa Kemal’in askerleriyiz” – we all are soldiers of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey.

In addition, besides AK Party’s branches, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) headquarters at Izmir was surrounded twice on June 1 by a group of 3,000-4,000 people chanting nationalist slogans, even though BDP has nothing to do with the park project or any of the so-called restrictive legislations either.

One should keep in mind that this is happening at a time when the government has taken audacious steps to settle the Kurdish issue politically through open negotiations with Kurdistan Worker Party’s (PKK) incarcerated leader Abdullah Ocalan and while the debate about redefining Turkey’s citizenship clause has been the most intense.

The park project has provided a good medium for these neo-nationalist secular groups to convey their displeasure over the government challenging the established orthodoxy of the Kemalist regime and touching on issues of identity. Thus, for a significant chunk of protesters, this whole affair is the continuation of the contest of perspectives-vision for redefining Turkey.

In fact, this protest is not the first public contention between different perspectives in defining Turkey. Rather, it is the latest evolution of a process that has spanned the past decade. In 2007, similar protests, more peaceful but more crowded, took place across major cities to prevent the AK Party’s candidate, Abdullah Gul, from replacing the incumbent president on the grounds that his wife was wearing a headscarf.

For protesters, the election of Abdullah Gul was posing a threat to the secular nature of the republic, which needed to be prevented by all means, including military means. In fact, this military threat was made clear when the chief of staff, Yasar Buyukanit, posted a threatening letter against Abdullah Gul’s candidacy for the presidency on the military’s website. Thus, this latest dispute represents yet another dimension of contention for redefining Turkey.

Recent events in Turkey are essentially the result of the democratisation programme of the past decade, which facilitated the ground for diverse perspectives in the political sphere to compete to redefine Turkey, as the tutelary regime has been weakened and Turkey has embarked on a process of settling its major issues.

Given the nature and magnitude of the issues that Turkey needs to deal with and rectify, it is only natural to expect that Turkey’s democracy will only get more contentious and noisier – due to the fact that most of these issues are related to notions and identities crafted both for and by nation and state. Should Turkey draw the correct lessons from these protests, the country’s democracy might emerge strengthened from this turmoil.

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

Follow him on Twitter: @GalipDalay