TURKISH SPRING OR TURKISH WINTER ?

In a tumultuous few weeks for Turkey, early June saw a violent police action against environmental activists in central Istanbul turn into a nationwide protest against the prime minister and his policies.

Indeed, in just a few days, the stench of tear gas in the streets of the nation’s largest cities, along with the sound of riot guns, police water cannons and furious residents banging pots and pans in protest, became a nightly phenomena.
By the time of writing, in mid-June, according to the Turkish Medical Association four people had been killed during the protests, along with some 5,000 injured. Hundreds had also been detained nationwide during the nights of rioting, and dozens more in a follow-up police crackdown.

“We don’t know where this is going,” said one activist, giving her name only as ‘Selcan’ for fear of police reprisals, “but we know things will never be the same again.”

Events began peacefully enough back in May when a group of environmental activists began an occupation of Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul and adjacent to the city’s iconic Taksim Square. This protest, organised by the Taksim Platform, was against the planned demolition of the park to make way for a shopping and residential complex housed in a rebuilt Ottoman-era barracks.

The park’s demolition had been opposed by some 100,000 signatories to a petition and by local political representatives, yet was still scheduled to go ahead after receiving strong support from Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan himself. This also followed the demolition of a popular old local cinema, a major rehabilitation project in the nearby neighbourhood of Tarlabasi and a number of other new, major construction projects underway in the city, all of which have been controversial.

“Gezi Park was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Didem Akyel Collinsworth, Turkey Analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Many people had become fed up with what they saw as a lack of transparency in the construction process – over who got the tenders, over not enough consultation with local people, architects, planners and other groups.”

When occupation of the park – at this stage under- taken by no more than 50 people – was violently broken up by riot police in the early morning of 31 May, a sense of outrage at the police’s behaviour, which included tear gassing the local metro station, and the perceived intolerance of the city authorities towards the protest was then added into the mix of frustrations.

At the same time, “a particular part of society has also felt its personal lifestyle increasingly threatened since the current government came to power,” adds Collinsworth.

This particular part consists of the predominantly secular, more educated urban middle and upper middle class professionals – people who lead a more western lifestyle than many other Turks.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative, pro-business grouping with Islamist roots, recently put forward a law placing new limits on the sale of alcohol, and had also attempted to change laws on abortion. Alcohol has long been tolerated in Muslim Turkey, while abortion has never been that controversial. The AKP moves were seen by this secular, more westernised population as being indicative of a creeping Islamisation of their lifestyles.

At the same time, since the AKP came to power in 2002, a number of business conglomerates associated with the party and its leaders have risen in power and influence. The Tarlabasi redevelopment, for example, is being undertaken by a subsidiary of Calik Holding, whose CEO is Erdogan’s son-in-law.

A perception exists among many secularists that companies with government connections are squeezing out competitors from lucrative government contracts.

A similar perception exists over the media, with newspapers and TV channels now widely seen as more markedly pro-AKP than they have ever been before. Meanwhile, groups that took an anti-AKP line have come under increasing pressure. This seemed for many to be born out by the initial lack of coverage of the Gezi Park protests by many media outlets. Indeed, this underly- ing tension is more widely seen as the real reason for the eruption of protest that followed the police action.

“What happened in Gezi Park was not a cause, but a result,” says Bulent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, a newspaper generally seen as sympathetic to the AKP government. “The government’s policies are perceived by a number of people in Turkey as authoritarian and non-democratic, not reflecting the demands of a certain part of society, but determined by the prime minister himself.”

While the Gezi Park events triggered the Istanbul protests, the sense of exclusion and interference with personal preferences perceived by many Turkish professionals then sent this protest national.

At the same time, other groups with grievances also joined in. Rioting spread as far south as Antakya, on the Syrian border, where the protestors were mainly Alevis – members of the Alawite sect close to Shi’ite Islam who have long felt marginalised in largely-Sunni Turkey. They often also disagree with the AKP’s recent hostility to the Alawite-backed Assad regime, over the frontier. Other revolutionary Marxist and anarchist groups have also jumped on the bandwagon.

Thus the protestors come from a variety of back- grounds and beliefs, all frustrated that their views are not being taken into account. While the AKP remains popular – at the last election it garnered around 50% of the vote – the other 50% feel increasingly marginalised.

This is compounded by the fact that “there is a lack of a reliable and authoritative political alternative to the government,” adds Kenes. Many feel the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has also failed to represent them.

“The CHP is divided inside by different view points,” says Collinsworth. “It’s just not working.”

At the same time, the AKP itself has become more dominated by the prime minister.

“When the AKP was founded,” says Kenes, “there were at least four leaders – Abdullah Gul, Bulent Arinc, Abdullatif Sener and of course, Erdogan. But in the process of ruling Turkey, Erdogan’s position has become much more powerful than any of the others.”

Now, there is great uncertainty over what the future will bring. Gezi Park is back in the hands of the city authorities, the protestors have taken to passive resistance and a swathe of new measures cracking down on social media, while increasing police powers, have been proposed by the government.

“In these situations,” says Kenes, “either rulers try to find a way to be more tolerant and open, or they try to oppress and suppress more. Unfortunately, the signals given by the Turkish government so far show they prefer the second way.”

How that will play out in the months ahead remains to be seen but Turkey’s summer looks likely to be a hot one.

Jon Gorvett

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