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Turkey: what lies behind the nationwide protests?

The nationwide demonstrations were spontaneous, universal and beyond distinct class characteristics. What we have witnessed can be described as the self-protection of society against a particular form of “governance” which neutered politics and silenced voices of dissent by appealing to the requirements of economic success, says Ayse Bugra

Ayse Bugra
6 August 2013

The cover story of the June 29th-July 5th issue of The Economist magazine, entitled the “March of Protest”, featured four figures representing the protests of 1848 in Europe, 1968 in America and Europe, 1989 in the Soviet Empire and 2013 'everywhere'. The protests that began in Istanbul early this summer and spread throughout the country form part of a wave of global anger which The Economist article said “is sweeping the cities of the world”.  In Turkey, the protests were triggered by an urban development project in downtown Istanbul which included the construction of a shopping mall and a replica of the 18th century military barracks in the area where the Gezi Park is situated. The occupation of the park by the demonstrators who opposed the project was soon followed by a massive wave of protest throughout the country. While each site of protest has its society -specific grievances and its own idiom for expressing its demands, the case of Turkey, like all others situated in the current historical conjuncture, can only be understood by analysing specific local grievances against a common global backdrop.

Remembering Politics and Polanyi in 2013

One might have to go back to a phrase immortalized by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, “There is No Alternative”, to understand the global context of protest movements worldwide. This affirmation of the absence of an alternative to the then emerging  neoliberal order meant, first and foremost, the end of politics as a means of influencing and shaping the economy and society through deliberation. The economy and society were to be managed according to the logic of market relations and the commodification of life and livelihood had to be accepted as an inevitable condition for economic progress. Economic insecurity and the degradation of the cultural and natural environment could not be contested through political means because the separation of the political and the economic was seen as the central characteristic of a well-functioning market economy. To the extent that politics had any place in this new global order, it was in the realm of identity politics. Religious identity, in particular, became an important element in a context where references to “post-secularism” or the “return of public religion” proliferated. Religion appeared both as a factor in political competition and as a source of  national and international conflict.

It is against this historical background that large groups of people throughout the world have come together to protest against widespread unemployment and income inequality, the deterioration of social services, the degradation of the environment, or rampant corruption. The interests protesters represented were those of social groups who simply demanded that their voices be heard in political decision making processes.

In many ways, these protests remind us of Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the popular reaction against the 19th century global market system whose tendencies toward the commodification of life and livelihood had many parallels with those observed through our current neoliberal globalization. The expression that Polanyi used in his analysis was “the self-protection of society” which, as he put it, “possessed all the unmistakable characteristics of a spontaneous reaction. At innumerable disconnected points it set in without any traceable links between the interests directly affected or any ideological conformity between them.”

In the specific case of Turkey, the nationwide demonstrations exhibited these characteristics of the 19th century resistance movements discussed by Polanyi. They were spontaneous, universal and beyond distinct class characteristics in the way their demands were voiced. What we have witnessed could, in fact, be described as the self-protection of society against a particular form of “governance” which neutered politics and silenced voices of dissent by appealing to the requirements of economic success. In Turkey, this form of governance also included the imposition of a centrally defined form of Islamic culture on society. Hence, the protests were not only against the economic but also the cultural underpinnings of a policy orientation which has become increasingly stifling and autocratic during the ten year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Protests in Turkey: antecedents and actors

No one could anticipate the timing and the scope of what is now generally known as “Gezi protests”. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that during the last decade public demonstrations have become widespread in Turkey, and the authorities have used increasingly violent measures to prevent and suppress them. 

In 2008, for example, the labour union confederation DISK decided to hold the May 1 demonstrations in Taksim square, which has great symbolic significance for the Turkish labour movement, instead of the government designated areas where the demonstrators would remain largely invisible to the public. The government did not accede to their demand and the pepper gas used by the police filled the air and affected the inhabitants in several districts of Istanbul. On the day, I was a witness to the police throwing pepper gas into the building itself where DISK has its headquarters and later talked to people who had seen the emergency ward of a hospital, where injured demonstrators were taken, also gassed by the police. In the following years, there were more and more May Day demonstrators in downtown Istanbul despite escalating police brutality. There were jokes about the Istanbulites’ addiction to pepper gas, but some of the casualities were serious. On May 1, 2013 a 17 year old student was severely injured by a tear gas canister that hit her in the head and she remained in a coma for several weeks.

May Day demonstrations were led by labour unions, but during the last decade there were other protest movements throughout the country and many of these were about environmental issues. A particularly strong campaign was launched against the gold mining venture in the western town of Bergama. The massive resistance of the rural population of the region against this gold mining operation, which used environmentally hazardous cyanide, was the most important environmental social movement in Turkish history. Although the environmentalists were supported by several court decisions, they were not able to stop the mining operations.

There were also massive protests launched against the recently mushrooming Hydroelectric Power Plants which had environmentally disastrous effects, that were often repressed with immense police violence. Apart from many injured protestors, one person lost his life as a result of the brutal use of pepper gas.

Investments in infrastructure formed an important part of the AKP’s economic development strategy and these investment decisions were often undertaken without considering their impact on the natural environment and cultural heritage. One such dam construction project which would lead to the inundation of the medieval town of Hasankeyf in Eastern Turkey, led to a particularly strong public reaction.  Since this project was financed by a foreign banking consortium, it had not gone through the usual procedures governing public contracts. Eventually, public resistance caused the foreign consortium to abandon the project and a group of Turkish banks stepped in to finance it. One of the banks in question is owned by a media boss whose prestigious TV channel has, during the last few years, become notorious due to the number of journalists laid off for objective coverage of events distasteful to the government.

In Istanbul itself, the sustained efforts of protesters could not prevent the demolition of a patisserie and an old cinema, both important historical landmarks for the inhabitants of the city. These symbols of urban public memory were demolished to make way for new shopping centers to augment the already large number of the recently constructed ones.

To understand the AKP government’s gross insensitivity to demands for the protection of the natural environment and cultural heritage, one needs to consider the nature of the recent dynamics of economic development in Turkey. Under AKP rule, although the average rate of economic growth has not been as high as those observed in the emerging economies of countries such as China, Brazil or India, it nevertheless achieved a respectable rate. However, this went along with an increasing current account deficit, much larger than in the overwhelming majority of developed and developing economies. Hence, the economy became heavily dependent on the inflow of foreign capital. Capital flow, in its turn, depended on positive expectations about economic growth, which were largely led by infrastructure development and the vitality of the construction sector where a huge public agency (TOKI) has come to dominate the use of real estate and financial credit. This meant that environmental concerns had to be subordinated to the requirements of economic profit.

While the AKP government has followed a market-oriented economic strategy, the presence of the government in economic life has remained very significant. Businessmen with good relations with the government could, as in the past, benefit from opportunities for politically supported capital accumulation created by the exceptions introduced or the changes made in the legal framework of the existing regulatory system. Under successive AKP governments, Public Procurement Law, which constitutes the centerpiece of the legislative framework of government-business relations, was changed 24 times, with over 100 amendments made in its scope and applications as well as in the clauses determining the exceptions. The current application of the Public Procurement Law, especially the use of the clauses concerning exceptions, was criticized in the European Commission’s progress reports on Turkey, albeit with little impact on the prevailing forms of economic intervention and the nature of government-business relations. 

These relations are currently unfolding in a deeply polarized environment where political positions taken by business actors can have serious and adverse effects on their prospects for business development. In this regard, the spectacular tax penalty imposed on Aydın Doğan, a media mogul with diversified business interests in other sectors, constitutes a striking example. The remarkable tax penalty of $ 3.8 billion received by Doğan was the result of his media group’s openly critical stand against political Islam in general and the AKP government in particular. Eventually, Doğan had to sell a large number of his newspapers and television channels and significantly downsize his media empire. This incident had wide press coverage both in the country and abroad.

To varying degrees, nearly all Turkish governments considered the media as a tool for building and maintaining hegemony. Media acquisitions by business people introduced another dimension to this already problematic relationship as they rendered the media more vulnerable to political manipulation given the government’s power to influence profit opportunities in other sectors where the media investors had economic interests. Although the process had already begun, under AKP rule it has taken a more decisive turn as several newly emerging entrepreneurs, close to the government, acquired media outlets. The media sector has thus become an arena where economic and political interests are jointly pursued. This has significantly contributed to the present state of affairs where journalists are effectively “tamed” by direct editorial intervention, fear of dismissal or even imprisonment. In fact, along with the outrage caused by police brutality, the demise of objective reporting and critical journalism was one of the factors which kindled public anger and led to the nationwide spread of Gezi protests. Many were shocked to see how the mainstream media initially tried to avoid covering the events. “The revolution will not be broadcast on TV” was one of the many clever slogans used by the demonstrators.

The recent wave of protests has revealed both the extent to which the media has been silenced by the government, and how available communication technologies undermine the ability of repressive governments to control the flow of information and limit the freedom of expression. Coming together in a demonstration and acting in solidarity in a movement of resistance becomes relatively easy for people who are used to virtual friendships formed on the internet.

Young people who grew up in the information age constituted the majority of the Turkish demonstrators, but the student activists of the 1960s were also out there. There was a point at which the threshold of fear was overcome; parents stopped worrying about their children and went out to face pepper gas and water cannons with them.  Unionized workers demonstrated with the self-employed, informal sector employees with medical doctors, architects and lawyers. The oldest and the most important business group of the country, Koç, opened the doors of its luxurious downtown hotel to protestors who turned it into a shelter from police violence and an emergency ward for the injured. The largest industrial enterprise of the country, an oil refinery affiliated with the Koç Group, recently faced what was presented as a tax inspection as well as a search for smuggled oil carried out by a large group of inspectors accompanied with about 20 policemen.  

What brought the demonstrators from different walks of life together was their reaction to an economic strategy where growth led to environmental degradation, to a limited understanding of politics identifying democracy solely with the ballot box whilst remaining oblivious to people’s concerns and demands, to the polarizing discourse of political authorities and to the way economic and political interests have become intertwined within the networks formed around the ruling party.  People were also united by the resentments caused by the politically engineered rise of religious conservatism that marginalized those whose lifestyles were not deemed to be in conformity with the government authorities’ understanding of the principles of Sunni Islam. Women who were conspicuous among the protestors particularly resented the Prime Minister’s statements condemning abortion as murder, suggesting that all Turkish families should have at least three children and affirming that caesareans are to be avoided. Many of the female protestors, as well as the LGBT groups who were also visible among the demonstrators, were aware of and uncomfortable with the strong familiarism and the affirmation of traditional gender roles that informed social policy processes. A recent piece of legislation seriously restricting the sale and the use of alcohol, which was approved by the president while the protests continued, served to confirm and enhance the concerns about government interference in personal life. The slogans written on the walls included one which said “You shouldn’t have prohibited that last beer”.

Hopes and doubts about the future  

During the past decade, domestic and foreign coverage of Turkish affairs has been dominated by praise for the successful economic performance and the admirable progress toward democratization realized by the “moderately Islamic” AKP government. Critical voices and expressions of discontent were easily silenced by marginalizing  opponents and labelling them as “authoritarian nationalists”, “Kemalist militarists”, or “members of a small secularist elite worried about losing their privileged position in society.” The rosy picture of Turkey under AKP, which was actively promoted by a highly effective ideological offensive carried out by the intellectuals who supported the ruling party, had already begun to appear less convincing before the recent wave of protests; it has become impossible to sustain after the protests revealed the scope and the diversity of the opposition as well as the depth of the resentments caused by the particular mix of economic liberalism and cultural conservatism forced upon the country. Nevertheless, the idea that there is no political alternative to AKP rule still prevails in some accounts of the recent events.

Is there a political alternative? Or, as A. Touraine asked at the beginning of his book Beyond Neoliberalism: Is our society still capable of using its ideas, hopes and conflicts to act upon itself?”  In the short run, the answer to Touraine’s question will depend on the ability of the spontaneous wave of resistance to organize itself in ways which could influence party politics and the results of democratically held elections. There are several reasons to think that the hope for a democratic change of government might not be too fragile. First, the fact that for the first time in the country’s Republican history the military is not an important actor in political developments opens a window of opportunity. Second, it should not be forgotten that in spite of the ravages of the military intervention of 1980 which still linger, Turkey remains an organized society. While the protests were clearly spontaneous and unplanned, they have taken place with the active participation of not only a myriad of NGOs but also of labour unions and professional associations which represent thousands of architects, engineers, medical doctors and lawyers. CHP (Republican People’s Party),the main opposition party which had 33.6 per cent of the popular vote against the AKP’s 40.2 per cent in the last elections for Istanbul metropolitan assembly, has intelligently maintained a respectful distance from the protest movement and did not try to politically manipulate it. But some of its MPs took part in the events and they were gassed and harassed with the demonstrators. While the CHP could not stop the police brutality, it could at least carry the issue into parliamentary debate and was often supported by the two other parties of the opposition.

The BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), which is affiliated with the Kurdish movement, was initially lukewarm about  the protests which overshadowed the on-going “Kurdish opening” of the government. Eventually, however, the leaders of the party made statements to the effect that democracy in Turkey is a necessary precondition for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem.

At the same time, the demonstrators, among whom there were many people not at all sympathetic to the Kurdish demands for regional autonomy, refrained from using any nationalist slogans. Equally careful were the ardent secularists who actually seemed to appreciate the presence of “anti-capitalist Muslims” in the protests and eventually joined them in a huge Ramadan feast which turned into a heart-warming potlatch bringing people together against the polarizing discourse of the government authorities who have continued to demonize the protestors with reference to their alleged disrespect for religion and their immoral and immodest behaviour. These signs of the possibility of peaceful coexistence constitute another important reason to be hopeful about the possibility of a democratic future.

It would nevertheless be dangerous to be over optimistic about the pluralist atmosphere of the protest movement which can easily change under the influence of attempts to manipulate nationalist sentiments and religious sensibilities or the campaigns against the CHP (which the supporters of the AKP still try to discredit with reference to its single party rule in the pre-Second World War decades of early Republican history). There is also reason to expect an escalation of police violence, arbitrary arrests and court sentences against the demonstrators and the people who have supported them in different ways. Several recent developments, such as the above-mentioned visit of inspectors to the Koç-affiliated industrial enterprise or new legislation affecting both the sources of revenue and the prerogatives of the Chamber of Architects, a body active in opposing arbitrary urban planning decisions, indicate the determination of the government to repress dissent and opposition by using different methods of intimidation and disempowerment. There are in fact, quite disturbing signs that this determination is being rationalized and justified by de-legitimizing the democratic opposition to the government. Recurrent parallels made by the Prime Minister between the military-led ouster of the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and the current opposition against his government, for example, indicate that he might be refusing to make any distinction between military interventions and popular expressions of discontent which might lead to a search for political alternatives in conformity with democratic practice.

Perhaps more alarming is the Prime Minister’s polarizing discourse which inflames rather than dispels the tension in the air. The police were congratulated and rewarded after weeks of violence against an unarmed crowd leading to five deaths, 12 losing an eye and hundreds sustaining diverse injuries. People were told to inform the police against their neighbours who disturb public peace by banging pots and pans to express their solidarity with the protestors, and the supporters of the AKP were provoked against the demonstrators in different ways.  While many shopkeepers around Taksim seemed to be sympathetic to the protests, at some point one individual actually attacked a crowd of demonstrators with a huge knife. He was taken into custody and a case was opened against him, but he was released on the grounds that he was not likely to escape. The following day it was reported that he had flown to Morocco. In a country where there are thousands of people - including many journalists, a few prominent scientists, and some elected members of the parliament - who are languishing in prison while their trials have, in some cases, been continuing for years, the leniency with which this aggressor armed with a lethal weapon was treated seems remarkable.

The fact that they were so far limited to non-violent acts of civil disobedience constitutes a highly encouraging aspect of the protests in Turkey. Avoiding the outbreak of violence is, indeed, of crucial significance for the expressions of discontent to translate into a healthy process of political participation and contribute to the democratization of the country. But the future of Turkish democracy also depends on the kinds of lessons the ruling regime draws from the recent events. Unfortunately, the reactions of the government to these events have so far been far from encouraging.

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