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From Gezi Park to Turkey’s transformed political landscape

The sociological transformation made manifest in these election results will continue to profoundly affect the political sphere in Turkey for the foreseeable future. 

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Celebrations in Diyarbakir for the victory of the HDP. Celebrations in Diyarbakir for the victory of the HDP. Demotix/ Aurore Belot. All rights reserved.The Turkish general elections of June 2015 yielded two important results exposing the social transformations that have occurred in the last few years. The first concerns the decline of AKP,[1] whose share of the total vote dropped to 40.66% of (in 2011 it had been 49.9%). The second is the remarkable rise of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which scooped up 12.96% of the vote (up from 5.75% of cast ballots in 2011[2]).

These two developments are interrelated, as the HDP had to overcome the 10% election threshold to be able to enter the National Assembly, due to the Turkish election system. They now hold 80 seats in parliament. As a consequence, AKP’s seats declined from 327 to 258. The People’s Republican Party (CHP), the main oppositional party, which represents Kemalist secularism at large in the political sphere, was expected to obtain all the secularist votes criticizing AKP’s Islamist politics. Despite the frustration of its electors, it maintained its usual percentage (25.13% of vote).

Some of the CHP electors switched their vote in solidarity to HDP, in order to overcome the election threshold obstacle. Furthermore, the nationalist reaction of some citizens to the ongoing “peace process” (between the government and the rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party “PKK”) led them to vote for the Party of Nationalist Movement’s (MHP), whose electoral outcome increased from 12.9% in 2011 to 16.3%.  According to these results, none of the parties can constitute a government by itself. A coalition government seems the most likely outcome. However this will be difficult because of the nationalist party MHP’s refusal to form a coalition with HDP and their reluctance with respect to the continuity of the ongoing peace process with PKK. Also, all three parties are disinclined to form a coalition government with the AKP.

This article does not focus on future coalitions or the constitution of a new government in Turkey. Its main interest is the sociological transformation made manifest in these election results. It is this social transformation that will continue to affect the political sphere in Turkey for the foreseeable future.

The Gezi uprising and social transformation

Signs of this transformation have emerged from the historical fissure that appeared during the Gezi uprising. This movement was based on waves of social unrest that started in Istanbul with the occupation of Gezi Park against its destruction by the government in the summer of 2013, and spread to other cities during the summer. After being violently crushed, the Gezi Movement resumed its activities organizing neighbourhood forums, solidarity organizations and urban resistance movements. Gezi Resistance was able to reunite political groups from different cultural identities, social classes and generations. It evolved from an occupy movement to a fully-fledged upheaval against the government. 

Gezi itself reflected an evolution in popular dissatisfaction and anger that had started in the late 2010s. In 2007, thousands of people marched in an improvised demonstration to denounce the murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-leftist journalist whose assassins still remain unknown. After that day, the participation of non-organized citizens in public demonstrations rose, which was a rare phenomenon in the 1990s. Sociologists maintain that the initiation of the peace process with PKK, the decline of terrorist acts and the mood of fear encouraged non-organized ordinary people to participate in the demonstrations (Uysal: 2013).

On the other hand, by the end of the first decade of the 2000s and despite the propagation of the street protests, the authoritarian dimensions of the AKP regime grew stronger, as illustrated by the rise in the arrests of students, researchers and journalists. The arrests and imprisonment of “educated” leftist people provoked anger among “non-organized” people. The accumulation of this anger exploded to the fore with the Gezi Revolt.

Social transformation and AKP

AKP governments have been supported by those masses that felt excluded from Turkish modernization and an authoritarian laicité, by ensuring they were integrated into the neoliberal economy and global capital by the end of the 1990s and beginning of 2000s. It was the people’s answer to the Kemalist modernization project.

While supporting this “democratization” of the Kemalist modernization carried out by the AKP government, Turkish liberal academics and intellectuals focused their attention only on the fact that the AKP government policies unblocked the economy for global capital and provided the masses with some freedoms in the public and political sphere. They failed to see in the AKP the political manifestation of social resentment as a result of the exclusion of many from the system. This exclusion came to a head with the February 28 process. On 28 February 1997, the government and the army took some measures against the rise of Islam in the public sphere, such as shutting down Islamic foundations and associations and banning some Islamic politicians from the political arena.  Revengeful policies provoked by this resentment have constituted the main axis of AKP policies during the last years.

In western neoliberal economic systems, turning away from democratic governance is experienced as a problem that leads to global insurgencies. In Turkey, this situation combined with the revanchist attitude prompted by the painful history of modernization and led to the deterioration of the political scene. What surged in Gezi was a reaction against AKP’s policies whose revanchist positions had descended into the authoritarian oppression of individual and collective rights and freedoms. The meeting of different groups, classes and social categories in Gezi was the consequence of this reaction. This reaction is the Turkish version of the global uprising against the neo-liberal governments and technocratic administrations.

The decline of the votes of the AKP shows that the slipping into authoritarianism and one-man rule created widespread discontent among its own voters too, especially among its youth. According to statistics by the polling company KONDA, AKP only received 25% of the votes from the age bracket 18-25 years old, whereas it had 40.66% of the total vote. This is 5% less than Turkey’s total youth vote. The policies of urban rent, the destruction of nature and of urban aesthetics, as well as the subordination to global capitalism in the last years were severely criticized by Islamist young people. We can perhaps read this decline of youth votes for the AKP as the reflection of a critical discourse circulating in the public sphere among youth since Gezi.

Gezi resistance and Kurdish resistance: the rise of HDP

Although it was the middle classes who mainly initiated the Gezi Uprising, working class people coming from the suburbs, as well as protesters from ethnic, gendered and religious marginalized identities joined them.

They resisted together a police violence that most of them had never experienced before. This experience provoked an empathy and consciousness among middle classes of the western cities in Turkey. With the Gezi resistance, they realized that they were marginalized as well.

As Üstündag stated, “Gezi Park has become an insurgency against marginalization” (Nazan Üstündag: 2013). The masses who had for a long time trusted the way the Kurdish problem was framed as terrorism by the official discourse, have become conscious of media censorship and realized that the State does not always tell the truth as they experienced themselves the state’s provocative lies about the Gezi protesters. (Alessandrini, Üstündag, Yıldız: 2013). On the second week of the Gezi occupation, thousands of Gezi protesters contested with Kurdish slogans the death of an eighteen year-old Kurdish boy killed by soldiers firing at the villagers who were protesting in the Kurdish village of Lice. This was a historic moment, especially for the non-organized middle classes.

The support given to pro-Kurdish HDP by “white Turks”[3] from the western part of Turkey illustrates the continuity with this empathy and interaction developed after Gezi, a continuity that gave birth, during the Kobanê[4] resistance, to the support of Kurdish resistance by middle class people inhabiting central cities in the west of Turkey.

The public spheres of Kadıköy and Beyoğlu, two central areas of Istanbul, expressed their support this winter by organizing protests, collecting donations among the new organizations created after Gezi, forums, groups of urban resistance and green resistance. Beyond this support coming from the “white turks”, the radical left-wing groups of Turkey have also strongly supported the Kobanê resistence. Kobanê is the symbol of the Rojova Revolution for them, therefore support of Kobanê is greeted as support for a socialist revolution in the Middle East. In Ankara, the same solidarity with Kobanê is visible among student organizations, unions and neighbourhood organizations. These developments are signs of the solidarity created between Gezi resistance and Kurdish resistance.

The most curious result of this was the case of anarchist youths whose symbolic significance is much more important than their number within the electorate: for the first time some anarchists participated in parliamentary democracy to support and vote for the HDP. Some even became official observers for this party during the elections process. The tweets they sent during the elections reproduced the sense of humor typical of Gezi: “We were post-structuralist anarchists. Now we have become election observers in Sarıyer[5] from HDP! J

During the same period, the AKP was suspected of giving support to Daesh. While Erdoğan hesitated to call them “terrorists” he continued calling the Kurdish fighters “terrorists.” This “official” discourse contributed to switch conservative Kurdish votes from AKP to HDP. The switch of these votes to HDP was crucial in surpassing the 10% threshold.

To see the rise of HDP mainly as the consequence of this interaction between Gezi and Kobanê resistances would be unfair, given the role of the Kurdish resistance, which has survived many years, and also of the shared dream of a “unified Turkish left,” which has endured since the 1960s.

After the period of the separate struggle by the Kurdish left, this dream of a ‘unified left’ was rekindled by the creation of the HDK – Congress of Democratic Peoples - in 2011. This organization united more than 20 leftist parties and organizations under a single roof. The HDP is composed of the HDK and other leftist organizations mainly, even though the pro-Kurdish party BDP was a founding member and the most populous organization. This party combined in its program the policies of different leftist organizations, as well as the sensibilities and concerns of different groups such as LBGTI, feminists, leftist Armenians and environmentalists. For this reason it did not give voice to Kurdish people only, but also to the desires and demands coming from multiple leftist groups and minorities. Thus, the left-wing votes in Turkey – with the exception of a few left-wing groups and parties such as the Communist Party - are adding to the Kurdish votes and all going to the HDP.

Gezi youth and CHP

To understand the migration of CHP votes to the HDP it is also important to consider the transformation of the CHP as the main oppositional party from the centre left, in light of our hypothesis of social transformation affecting the election results.

Founded by Atatürk in [1923], the CHP is the founding party of the modern Turkish Republic. It is accepted by the public as the representative of modernity and secularism in Turkish democracy. However, to describe the CHP as such would be inadequate if one wanted to understand its recent transformation. We should underline this transformation by stressing that CHP has participated in these elections with a well developed programme, combining concrete economic planning with social policies, and placing its female and LBGTI candidates in the front lines of the lists to ensure their election, and that it integrated a Roma deputy into the parliament. For the first time CHP had candidates from multiple ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. The Kemalist-nationalists of Gezi projected their secularist hopes upon the CHP while the “leftists” of Gezi were warming up to the CHP in their struggle against the authoritarianism of AKP, even though they had not voted for the CHP before.

CHP candidates underlined this relationship with Gezi in its campaigns during the municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections. In the event, however, citizens acting in continuity with Gezi did not for the most part support CHP in the recent polls. The explanation lies in CHP’s image in the media. Furthermore some of the revealing innovations of Gezi - such as horizontal structure, minimization of hierarchies, the democratization of the decision-making process or being nourished by the street movements and the resistances - that affected the public sphere and some of these organizations, did not have a similar impact on the organizational structure of CHP.

The “Occupy CHP movement” initiated just after Gezi by the CHP youth, aimed at restructuring the party through “Gezi principles,” did not work, as the party’s core group was not able to translate new forms of organization into its structure. The deputies who supported the resistances and social movements were not placed at the top of candidate lists, giving an image of a CHP detached from the resistances.

Furthermore, the economic project elaborated by CHP to defeat AKP had a global economic vision that was far from respecting concerns that became prevalent during and after the Gezi movement, such as “the protection of nature” and “being against the neoliberal global economic system.” And some other CHP voters, for whom these were not the main concern, were also affected by a rational calculation, according to which if HDP could overcome the 10% threshold, it could also obtain more seats from AKP than CHP. A very simple calculus could convert their votes as “consigned votes” for the HDP, as long as the opponent was the same.

Social transformation and the elections

These election results point to a social transformation of the political sphere. The defense of freedom and democracy, against the authoritarian mentality, diffused in the wake of the Gezi movement, has materialized into the support and votes given by the “white Turks” of the central cities of the west to a left-wing party nourished by the Kurdish Liberation Movement.

This development refutes the argument of those who claimed that after the AKP’s big success in the local and presidential elections, “Gezi was a summer love story, it has been lived and finished”. Interaction between the Kurdish population and western parts of Turkey prove that the social transformation that emerged in Gezi will continue to ripple through the social, political and cultural spheres of Turkey.

One last reminder: movements like Gezi define themselves against and in a disconnect with the political sphere. They often question the political and organizational heritage by creating their own organizations, identifying themselves with discourses of rupture with the political. However, they can return after a while to this same area to transform it in the long-term. Whatever the members of this coalition will be, we can already say that the long-term effects of the Gezi and Kurdish resistances will continue to affect the political sphere in Turkey.

References

- Anthony Alessandrini, Nazan Üstündag, Emrah Yıldız, “A Brief Introduction to “Resistance Everywhere”: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey”, JadMag, Fall 2013, issue 1.4.

- Nazan Üstündag, “Praise for the Marginal Groups”, JadMag, Fall 2013, issue 1.4.

- Aysen Uysal, 2013) “Polis Halkı İsyana Teşvik eder mi?: Protesto Eylemlerinin Kaynağı Olarak Polis Şiddeti” (Can the police provoke people to revolt? Police violence as the source of protests), Birikim, 291-292.


[1] The government party founded by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has won all elections in the last 10 years. It blends a moderate Islamist ideology with neoliberal policies

[2] HDK’s vote percentage. HDP did not exist when the pro-Kurdish BDP participated in the elections and collaborated with some leftist organisations and parties under the name of HDK (Congress of Democratic Peoples). HDK was founded in 2011 and brought together only independent candidates, because of the 10% election threshold.

[3] Term used in Turkey for middle-upper class citizens who do not belong to the working class, neither to ethnic nor religious minorities

[4] Kobanê is one of the three autonomous cantons of Rojava, in northern Syria, and is currently under attack of Daesh

[5] A popular neighborhood in Istanbul.

How to cite:
Türkmen B. (2015) «From Gezi Park to Turkey’s transformed political landscape», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 7 July. https://opendemocracy.net/buket-türkmen/from-gezi-park-to-turkey’s-transformed-political-landscape
About the author

Buket Türkmen is associate professor of Sociology at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. Her articles on Gezi resistance and women, secularism, the public sphere, youth, Islamic and secularist foundations in Turkey have been published in French, English and Turkish. She is the editor of Laicités et religiosités : Intégration ou exclusion ? (Harmattan: 2010, France).

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