‘Not a Crime nor a Sin’: Organised Political Activism as the Way Forward in Turkey
Gezi Park Resistance Article Series – No. 5
‘Not a Crime nor a Sin’:
Organised Political Activism as the Way Forward in Turkey
Gezi Park, located in one of the busiest city centres of Istanbul, has become home to hundreds of thousands of protestors for almost two weeks. Resilience of protestors in Gezi Park coupled with increasing police violence against protestors and the Prime Minister Erdoğan’s humiliation of the protestors sparked an unprecedented series of protests both in other parts of Istanbul and in more than 70 provinces of Turkey. The scope and continuity of protests and the number of people involved in these protests have been never before seen in the history of Turkey.
Steady economic growth throughout the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) period did not go hand in hand with the enhancement of citizens’ quality of life and the realisation of basic human rights including right to fair trial and freedom of expression especially after the second victory of the AKP in general elections.
In the aftermath of the AKP’s third victory in general election of 2011, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s mandate over the party and the AKP’s mandate over the political system of Turkey have been consolidated. More importantly, in Gramsci’s term, it becomes much clearer that the ‘historic bloc’ of conservative neoliberals has been strongly established.
In this context, the AKP initiated the preparations for the first civilian constitution of Turkey with the promise of opening up the constitution writing process to all other political parties in the Parliament and civil society institutions. However, this promise has been largely unfulfilled. Conservative neoliberal historic bloc did not allow different sections of the opposition to influence the process in any way. In contrast, the AKP tried to impose changing the country’s political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential one as its initial condition upon all other parties in the Parliament.
In the meantime, the AKP government’s policy actions estranged people in opposition. Among many others, the government attempted to make abortion illegal, to push pubs out of the city centres, to kick the urban poor out of the city centre, to separate the youth camps of the Ministry of Youth for young men and women, to put restrictions on the consumption of alcoholic drinks, to expel the Labour Day demonstrations from Taksim square, to restructure the basic education system without getting the consent of the stakeholders and to marginalise proposals to fight against hate crimes against LGBTs. Organised political actors from feminist groups to progressive trade unions have already been fighting against this conservative neoliberal agenda yet with limited human resources.
Gezi Park protests initially started as a reaction of environmental and urban activists against “the appropriation of a public park for business ends”[i] with an authoritarian governance strategy. Increasing police violence against Gezi Park protestors and the Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statements that defamed the protestors ignited the massive participation of all other sections of the opposition. Protests in Turkey are the result of an articulation of all forms of anti-government grievances mainly concerning the government’s unwanted interventions to people’s everyday lives. According to a recently published survey, main reasons why people participated in Gezi protests are as follows: the authoritarian attitude of the Prime Minister, the police violence that protestors have been subjected to and the violation of democratic rights.[ii]
Today, protestors all around Turkey is a diverse group including already organised sections of society such as unionised workers, members of leftist organisations and human rights activists to unorganised secular Kemalists and youth.
As an activist involved in Gezi Park protests, I have been personally fascinated with the peaceful coexistence of diversity and the solidarity. In fact, it is important to remember that Taksim has already been a locus of workers’ rights activism and socialist movements, more recently it has become the centre of human rights movements including the rights of the Kurdish, women’s rights, LGBT rights and animal rights movements before the emergence of Gezi protests. I believe historical coexistence of these groups in Taksim created the potential of deepening of solidarity and egalitarian relations amongst strangers during the Gezi protests.
It was thanks to this history of organised political activism and active involvement of all of the abovementioned groups in the organisation of Gezi Park protests; this wave of spontaneous political action could take root. In addition, practically, the presence of organised political actors has made the protests to start in other parts of the country. In other words, the spontaneity of the Gezi Park protests owes much of its existence to the former political struggles against patriarchy, neoliberalism, homophobia, transphobia and ethnic nationalism. Presence and availability of this already existing political repertoire and coexistence has made it possible for pro-freedom and egalitarian discourse to become the dominant discourse amongst the protestors in Gezi Park. I believe this is the main reason why the current social atmosphere in Gezi Park appears as idyllic.
Second factor that made Gezi Park protests possible has been young people. Long described as apathetic to politics, young people have taken to the streets and enlivened political action with putting together an impressive anti-authoritarian and pro-freedom youth culture using all forms of social media and street art.
In Gezi Park, many people get to know each other, help each other, learn to trust each other, live together and work together for a common purpose. One should not underestimate the power of this. This is itself a new political organisation and a new way of relating one another. As it was stated: “We saw our own bodies ignite to a spark, and set the body of collective resistance to life”.[iii] As a result, the “demonstration phobia” collapsed[iv] and “the spirit is definitely one of regained self-confidence on the part of the masses”[v] throughout the country. In other words, what we have been witnessing here is that “democracy advances by direct action”[vi]. It would not be an exaggeration to argue, “Rehearsal of a new citizenship seems to be on the stage”[vii].
Apart from Ankara that could be considered similar to Gezi Park experience in terms of the diversity of political actors taking part, secular Kemalists dominated the political scene in other cities. Tugal suggests, “they are in it mostly as a way to defend their own interests and lifestyles. These people do not define the Gezi movement, but have already muddied the waters. Occupy Gezi has become much stronger partially due to their participation, but its national and international message risks being less clear now”[viii]. Tugal is right in stating that the political agenda of this larger group is not that clear when compared to the dominant discourse and practice in the Gezi protests. However, this relative loosening of the political agenda might be expected as the protests articulated different grievances of unaligned people into a nationwide protest movement. The power of these protests originates from the fact that there still is a common denominator to the movement that is the call for more freedom and power to the people.
In response, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government rejected all demands of the protestors and continued to defame the organised political opposition by all means. With respect to the fate of the Gezi Park, despite the recent court decision to annul the project in Gezi Park, Erdoğan publicly announced that the government would go ahead with the project. Concerning the protestors’ call for a pluralist democracy and the cessation of authoritarian practices of the government, Erdoğan publicly declared that democracy is first and foremost the ballot box. As Keyder succinctly summarised, “the leitmotif (of PM Erdoğan’s speeches) was that he had the numbers”[ix]. “National will”, as Erdoğan puts it, has the legitimate power. In addition, he tried to portray the Gezi Protests as the replica of previous anti-democratic attempts to topple the democratically elected governments. His majoritarian tone has become much clearer, as he went far as to threaten the protestors with his mandate over his own constituency that he did not let them to get into the streets so far. However, as Gullo put it, Erdoğan and his fellows failed to see that “democracy does not amount to … constitute a blank cheque to govern without having input from different cleavages of society”[x]. Given his reactions after the Gezi protests, Erdoğan “is offering unfortunate proof that it is possible to be both elected and authoritarian”[xi].
Gezi Park protests lay the ground for the active involvement of unorganised protestors into political parties, trade unions, leftist organisations and civil society organisations. As Buğra successfully pointed out, protestors should be aware that they have to work within the representative democratic political system in order to secure their political gains.[xii] It is important to note that this is not a normative statement; rather it is a strategic one.
Organised political activism that would push the political system in Turkey to institutionalise minority rights, restrict the rampant capitalism and establish pluralist democracy in Turkey do matter now more than ever. In fact, these institutions have to be there to challenge the conservative neoliberal historic bloc that emerged out of the greater integration of economic and political power in the AKP period.[xiii] Given the strength of the bloc, the counter bloc has to be as organised and strong.
Current discourse of the conservative neoliberal historic bloc proves that they are well aware of this possibility of the emergence of an organised political activism. After almost two weeks of protests, all significant figures of the conservative neoliberal bloc -Prime Minister Erdoğan, the Founder of Gülen Movement Fethullah Gülen, Minister of Internal Affairs Muammer Güler and the head of the Union of Chamber and Commodity Exchanges (Türkiye Odalar ve Borsalar Birliği, TOBB) Rifat Hisarciklioglu and heads of yellow trade unions- started to blame the political organisations that participate in the Gezi Park protests for abusing the good willed demands of innocent citizens. For them, almost all political organisations from Turkish Medical Association to Turkish Communist Party are illegal groups.
For instance, Fethullah Gülen introduces a distinction between those allegedly involved in violence of all sorts and others are innocent as well as having some innocent demands. For Gülen, the second group emerged as a result of the pious Muslims’ neglect of this generation. First group, according to Gülen, abuses the innocence of the second group and channels this group’s energy into harmful ideologies.[xiv] Main figures of the conservative neoliberal historic bloc ask innocent and nonaligned citizens to go back home while threatening the organised sections of the protests with harsh penalties.
Unfortunately, many intellectuals also argue that protestors should stay away from political organisations. For instance Nilüfer Göle suggests that it would be erroneous to interpret the Gezi protests from a political angle. For Göle, the protestors should stay autonomous from political parties. They should not act like a political movement. That is the only way the protestors “will be able to protect their innocence and renew the social imaginary of democracy”[xv]. Interestingly, the innocence as a concept once again appears as the opposite of the political and of the organised political action, this time by an intellectual supporting the main causes of Gezi Park protests. However, it is unclear how this innocence by itself will be able to change the unchecked majoritarian political system of the country.
As of now, the Government declared that it would proceed with the Taksim regeneration project as it is, did not declare that it would allow protests in Taksim and Kızılay freely and has not been convinced to restrict the power of the police and its use of tear gas. Therefore, our main achievement so far seems to be finding each other thus far and feeling the power of this. Another achievement is that unaligned protestors, who comprised of more than half of the protestors according to a recently published online survey,[xvi] have seen that they can work with the organised protestors from defamed political organisations. Some even started to question their blind spots such as the human rights violations against the Kurdish and LGBTs.
At this moment, members of political parties in opposition, organised leftists and human rights activists have to become aware that their organisations are not their own property. They have to find ways to open up their organisations to protestors and make their organisations democratic within. They have to open up their political organisations in a manner that does not aim to dominate the whole political sphere. They have to let the newcomers to experience with all available forms of political organisations, come up with new ones and/or make the existing ones change. It is the only way that they can emerge as strong actors that would have the power to further the ideal of pluralist democratic and egalitarian Turkey. In contrast to the counter propaganda, we have to speak up, stay together with all our diversity and tell the society that organised political activism is neither a crime nor a sin.
Volkan Yılmaz, Managing Editor, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey)
Yılmaz, Volkan (June, 2013), “‘Not a crime nor a sin’: Organised political activism as the way forward in Turkey”, Vol. II, Issue 4, pp.29-34, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3436)
[i] Keyder, Ç. June 2013. “First person singular,” London Review of Books Blog. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/06/03/caglar-keyder/first-person-singular/
[ii] Bilgiç, E. E. and Z, Kafkaslı. 2013. Protestocular Kim? Ne İstiyorlar?. İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi.
[iii] Müştereklerimiz. June 2013. “Today we are all someone new!”, Open Democracy. http://www.opendemocracy.net/müştereklerimiz/today-we-are-all-someone-new
[iv] Taştekin, F. June 2013. “Ultras: The Surprise Kids of Turkey’s Uprising,” Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/contents/articles/opinion/2013/06/instanbul-football-clubs-help-protesters.html
[v] Savran, S. June 2013. “Report from Turkey: A Taste of Tahrir at Taksim,” Socialist Project, E-bulletin no. 831. http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/831.php
[vi] Acemoğlu, D. June 2013. “Development won’t ensure democracy in Turkey,” The New York Times.
[vii] Göle, N. 2013. “Gezi: Bir kamusal meydan hareketinin anatomisi,” T24.
[viii] Tugal, C. June 2013. “Occupy Gezi: The limits of Turkey’s neoliberal success,” Jadaliyya.
[ix] Keyder, Ç. June 2013. “First person singular,” London Review of Books Blog. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/06/03/caglar-keyder/first-person-singular/
[x] Gullo, M. T. June 2013. “Turkey’s Liberal Awakening: The Battle beyond Gezi Park and the Lifting of the Veil of Ignorance,” Vol. II, Issue 4, pp. 12-15, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. http://researchturkey.org/?p=3352
[xi] The Washington Post. June 2013. “Prime Minister Erdogan’s strongman tactics in Turkey”. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-03/opinions/39715196_1_protesters-akp-protect-journalists
[xii] Buğra, A. June 2013. “Yaşam alanımız ve çıkarlar,” BİANET.
[xiii] Buğra, A. June 2013. “Yaşam alanımız ve çıkarlar,” BİANET.
[xiv] Akşam. 2013. “Fethullah Gülen’den Gezi Parkı yorumu,” June 6.
[xv] Göle, N. 2013. “Gezi: Bir kamusal meydan hareketinin anatomisi,” T24.
[xvi] Bilgiç, E. E. and Z, Kafkaslı. 2013. Protestocular Kim? Ne İstiyorlar?. İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi.