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Istanbul protests: what consequences for Turkey’s peace process?

The recent protests are redefining Turkey's democratic culture. But what consequences will they have on the historic ongoing Kurdish peace process?

Müjge Küçükkeleş
10 June 2013
A protester rests after a tear gas charge by the police. Demotix/Ibrahim Attar. All rights reserved.

A protester rests after a tear gas charge by the police. Demotix/Ibrahim Attar. All rights reserved.

The Gezi Park movement is of course not just about a park that people want to protect because of environmental considerations. "Occupy Gezi" turned into a phenomenon of widespread political reaction against the government’s single-handed approach to policy-making. Gezi Park, in a symbolic sense, enabled common action by people of different ideological and class attachments and religious and ethnic backgrounds in a country that is highly divided along ethnic, religious and socio-cultural lines. The outrage provoked by the police's actions played a unifying role for a wide spectrum of political positions (from liberals to social democrats, leftists, Kemalists, nationalists, conservatives and even AKP supporters) to act in solidarity.

Understanding the Kurdish movement’s cautious approach

The fact that such large scale protests erupted at a time when the government is engaged in a peace process with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to finally resolve the country’s decades-long Kurdish issue has naturally drawn some attention towards the position of the Kurdish political movement. But while Kurdish activists played an active role in raising public awareness of the Gezi park sit-ins during the early phase of the protests, their presence, after protestors grew in size and diversity, appeared to happen more on an individual basis than as an organized political force. The Kurdish political movement, on the other hand, opted to remain on the side-lines, refraining from participating in protests at full strength.

The Kurdish movement’s cautious approach could be explained by the group's need to comprehend the possible direction of the social explosion. The presence of radical Turkish nationalists and secular Kemalist groups who are strongly against the peace process and the increasingly nationalist and militarist tones of some slogans used by the protesters raised concerns among Kurds that the possible dominance of the protests by these groups could hurt and even derail the peace process.

Reflecting this feeling of unease among Kurds, BDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş stated on 1 June that his party supported the protests against repressive government policies, but warned against provocative attempts by some radical nationalist groups to sabotage the on-going peace process. He said, "We will not allow the events in Gezi Park to turn against the peace process. Our party base does not participate in demonstrations alongside racists and fascists."

Kurdish politicians’ wait and see approach to the protests is also partly due to the fear that an active Kurdish involvement in demonstrations could backfire, and ultimately be used by those who want to distort the legitimate demands of the protestors and divide them along nationalist lines. The possible intensification of protests led by Kurds in Kurdish-populated cities of eastern Turkey, and the use of excessive police power against Kurds, would put the BDP in a difficult position in its dealings with the government over the peace process.

Towards a more active support?

Nonetheless, the rise to prominence of democratic forces among the protesters has eased much of the concerns Kurds have had about the protests. The protesters’ calls on political parties to stay out of things, and the anti-militarist and democratic signs displayed across Gezi Park showed that the great majority of the protesters were not under the influence of radical Turkish nationalist or militarist groups. And while it is true that ultra-nationalist groups that strongly oppose the peace process have joined the protests and demonstrated against government policies, their voice and impact has remained weak against those democratic and liberal forces who demand a reinforcement of democratic freedoms and more participation in political processes that directly affect their lives, whether this concerns a city development plan or parliamentary legislation. As a recent survey conducted by Bilgi University researchers on Gezi Park protestors showed, an overwhelming 96 percent of protesters demand respect for individual liberties and 80 percent are against military intervention.

With the composition of the protesters gaining some clarity, the Kurdish movement quickly changed its wait and see approach for more active support of the protests. In a written statement on growing public resistance across the country, the Executive Council Presidency of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) declared the resistance to be a call for the establishment of a new democratic Turkey. KCK called on the Kurdish people to take initiative in the resistance and to take responsibility to ensure a harmonious progress of the process alongside other democratic forces in Turkey. After the declaration, Kurdish MPs marched to Taksim Square to lend their support to the protestors, and some protests began to occur in Kurdish populated cities in eastern Turkey including Diyarbakır.

What about the peace process?

Following the apology of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç for the excessive use of police power against Gezi Park protesters on 5 June, Taksim Solidarity Initiative, a platform led by original Gezi protestors, presented a list of demands to the government to end the protests. Demands include removal of some police chiefs, the ban on the use of tear gas, the release of detained protesters, the dismissal of Istanbul’s governor from office and a halt to the Gezi Park redevelopment plans. It remains to be seen to what extent the government will address these demands.

But beyond the question of how many such demands might be immediately fulfilled, sweeping protests across the country will have broad and long-term repercussions for Turkish democracy. For the first time in a long while, large segments of the Turkish people have openly manifested their discontent in the streets.

Even if there is no doubt that the protests do not constitute an immediate threat to the Government, the police retreat from Taksim Square and Gezi Park and the re-opening of the area to protestors has created a sense of empowerment among the people; for the first time in years, they realized that their actions could have a very direct impact on government policy. This is a milestone in the democratic experience of a Turkish state that has always yearned for submissive, passive and loyal citizens. The success the demonstrations had in stopping the destruction of the park, though temporarily, opened the way for people to go from being objects to actors in political life. An emerging culture of protest in Turkey is a clear signal to the government: the people have a right to have their voices heard in the governance of the country, and the government has to take into consideration and reckon with the many different opinions and concerns in their policy-making initiatives and methods.

Another key element is that the lack of coverage of the protests by the mainstream Turkish media only ensured that more people were attracted to joining the protests. More importantly, it generated awareness of the same media’s historically biassed attitude against events taking place in Kurdish cities. People have begun to raise questions about the media’s role in forming a negative cultural mind-set in Turkey, not least against the Kurds, by turning a deaf ear to their grievances. This emerging awareness, if widened, could be highly significant in budging long-held beliefs, fixed ideas and prejudices in the society, which, in turn, would help Turkey’s own peace process to achieve greater societal peace and justice.

Without a doubt, advances in Turkey’s democratic culture will directly enhance the situation of Turkey’s Kurdish community. Only in a democratic Turkey will the rights and freedoms of Kurds and Turks be guaranteed. However, a simple strengthening of the institutional mechanisms of democracy may not be enough to achieve social peace between Turkish and Kurdish communities. Gezi Park protests, in this respect, have already started to sow the seeds of mutual understanding. For the time being, the presence of Turkish nationalists alongside Kurds peacefully protesting against the Government is an unprecedented experience in the recent history of the country.

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