Crackdown at Taksim

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Protesters brave police water cannons and tear gas as they try to reach Taksim Square on May Day holding posters with the images of victims of last year’s protests. Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP

In the neighbourhood of Beyoglu in Istanbul, stickers and stencils portray Erdogan as a murderer. Photo: Vijay Prashad

Erdogan’s party, AKP, emerged as the main opposition to the Republican People’s Party of Kemal Ataturk. Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

The AKP’s victory (campaign poster in picture) in the municipal elections has strengthened Erdogan’s hands. Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP

A flyer distributed by protesters marching to Taksim Square on May Day rally. Photo: Vijay prashad

Protests build up against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but he remains defiant, cracking down on the May Day rally in Istanbul and even indicating that he may run for President in August.

ON MAY DAY, SEVERAL thousand people in the Turkish city of Istanbul marched towards Taksim Square, one of the city’s landmarks. They came from a cross section of society—workers in and outside of trade unions, radicals in and outside political parties and people frustrated with what they saw as the suffocation of Turkish politics. The Gezi Park protests of March 2013 had sparked off mass dissatisfaction with the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan— in power since November 2002.

Economic ailments and corruption allegations combined with a foreign policy in disarray did not dent the electoral fortunes of Erdogan’s party in the March 2014 municipal elections. Lack of a decisive opposition to Erdogan favoured his party but deepened frustration amongst his opponents. The May Day rally was to be one of the symbols of this opposition. The crackdown on it suggests that Erdogan is confident of weathering the consequences. The flutter of disapproval from Brussels did not bother him, nor did the complaints from human rights organisations. Europe requires Turkey for what remains of its West Asia agenda, and it cannot afford another Ukraine-like confrontation on its hands.

A week before May Day, the government denied the organisers the right to hold any demonstration in central Istanbul. Erdogan, who was Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, took to the floor of the Meclis (Parliament) in his folksy style. “Give up your hope of Taksim,” he said, and asked unions to meet on the outskirts of Istanbul. “The people do not want to see protesters clashing with police in the street. The people don’t want street scenes dominated by stones, sticks and Molotov cocktails.”

Erdogan’s party, the AKP, emerged as the singular opposition to the Republican People’s Party of Kemal Ataturk and of what is called the “deep state”, the military-controlled council and courts. The AKP appealed to the new business class of Anatolia, who benefited economically as the military government of the 1980s dismantled the controls over the national economy, which had privileged the Istanbul-based republican elite. This Anatolian business class also had fewer fealties to the secularism of the urban elite. That secularism had been secured through brute force: laws that denied people the right to outward signs of religious piety and that forced through Turkish culture at the expense of Ottoman-era social diversity. A combination of Republican and military ruthlessness alienated large parts of the country. They flocked to the AKP’s curious brand of pious Islamism, corporate governance and pro-European globalisation. Dressed in suits and ties, the leadership of the AKP eschewed the traditional fabric of Islamism. Theirs is the stability of businessmen not the military, malls not barracks.

The Gezi dynamic

In May of 2013, Turkey erased its 52-year debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was an important triumph for Erdogan’s government. When the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey’s debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio was at 78 per cent. By 2013, the debt-to-GDP ratio had fallen to 40 per cent. Turkey’s economy surged with foreign direct investment and corporate borrowing—much of it entering the construction industry which flourished inside Turkey and also in the Arab world, as part of the AKP’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy (whose architect is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu).

Finance also lubricated the newly empowered Anatolian business class, whose ambitions for global markets were placed on the worn shoulders of the producing classes in the small towns of Turkey. The International Labour Organisation shows that Turkey ranks first in Europe and third in the world in fatal work accidents. “Due to a lack of job security and difficulties in unionisation,” said Kani Beko of the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), “work accidents in Turkey have almost turned into murder.”

Along the grain of mall-driven development, Erdogan announced, in 2012, his party’s interest in building a Gulf-like complex with a monumental mall and mosque in central Istanbul. This would be built on Gezi Park, a public park that had once housed the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks. Those barracks, in keeping with the military-Republican attempt to erase Turkey’s complex history, had been built on an Ottoman-era Armenian cemetery. Erdogan’s monument would put the AKP’s ambitions onto the skyline of an Istanbul that is otherwise marked by its Ottoman and Republican history.

As bulldozers came to the park in May 2013, ordinary people, angered by the destruction of one of Istanbul’s lungs, set up an encampment. This was Occupy Gezi. The encampment became a hub for those who had grievances against the AKP government—environmentalists, unionists and radicals of all sorts. The mood at Occupy Gezi was festive. But this did not last long. Erdogan called the protesters looters ( c apulcular), threatening them with violence, “Where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.” As it turned out, Erdogan did not need to call upon his party. Reports say that the government flew in special police detachments from across Turkey to join the Istanbul police in the crackdown that followed. Twenty-four hours after the first encampment was set up on May 28, the police moved in. E. Ahmet Tonak, who teaches economics at Istanbul Bilgi University, told me that the crackdown was so ruthless that it drew in more people. It “very quickly spread throughout the country, with more than two to three million people” on the streets. A poll at the time, of 4,000 protesters, showed that while only 15 per cent protested against the environmental destruction, 49 per cent took to the streets to protest against the police violence. “Excessive use of tear gas and water cannon supplemented with a special kind of skin-burning chemical,” Ahmet Tonak pointed out, angered the public. The protests questioned the credibility of Erdogan’s government inside and outside Turkey.

During the crackdown, a 14-year-old boy, Berkin Elvan, went out to buy bread for his family. He was struck on the head by a tear-gas canister. Elvan remained in a coma for 269 days, finally succumbing to his injuries on March 11, 2014. Erdogan once more refused any compassion. He claimed that Elvan was a member of a terrorist organisation because his face was covered by a scarf, a natural reaction to an atmosphere saturated with tear gas. The funeral for Elvan sparked another set of protests across Turkey. Gulsum Elvan, the dead boy’s mother, said, “It’s not God who took my son away but Prime Minister Erdogan.” Elvan’s funeral foreshadowed the protests that would come on May 1 and on May 28, the anniversary of Gezi Park.

No people, no problems

Ahmet Tonak and I are sitting alongside the Bosphorus river, looking out at Istanbul’s Asian side. He tells me that the inlet called the Golden Horn was once a brown mess, but a careful dredging plan has since cleaned it up. The city does not betray the h u z u n, the melancholy, that Tonak’s classmate Orhan Pamuk wrote about in his elegiac Istanbul: Memories and the City. Istanbul’s commercial thoroughfare, Istiklal Avenue, bustles with brands that are as comfortable in New York and London, forgetting that these addresses once housed Greek and Armenian businesses (chased out after the cataclysmic riots of 1955). Just off Istiklal is the neighbourhood of Beyoglu, home to the hipsters (and Pamuk), where stickers and stencils portray Erdogan as a murderer. He is not popular in these cafes, where the spirit of Gezi is abundant.

Ergun Aydinoglu, a professor at Yildiz Technical, is the author of T u rkiye Solu, the definitive history of the Turkish Left. I ask him what he thinks of the Gezi movement and whether it could revive what appears to be a broken Left tradition. He is not optimistic. Since the 1980s, Aydinoglu says, “there has not been any social movement wave which could educate new socialist generations and the old socialist cadres so that they could come together. Quite the contrary, in the absence of social movements, there are now more than a hundred Left political groupings. In fact, the Gezi uprising of June 2013 was an important social movement, yet it was not strong enough in order to trigger such a development.”

Aydinoglu’s history of the Left shows us that its high point was in the 1960s and the 1970s, when the emergence of an active working-class movement almost combined with Left political parties to challenge seriously the military dictatorships (1971 and 1980) and the elite power bloc. A combination of official strikes and unofficial protests ( direnis) strengthened the confidence of the working class, whose new leadership was creative and effective. In 1976, two hundred official and unofficial strikes across Turkey culminated in a demonstration by 100,000 workers under the leadership of DISK to protest the formation of the “deep state”. May Day was celebrated that year with the confidence of victory.

The tide turned on May Day in 1977. Half a million workers marched in central Istanbul, but they were faced with “skilful provocation”, says Aydinoglu. The security forces cracked down on them, killing 37 workers. May Day was banned until 2010 (when it had to be allowed by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights). DISK’s Beko said this year, “Unidentified murders killed workers during 1977 May 1 celebrations. Until the state brings these murderers to justice, it is our responsibility to celebrate May 1 in Taksim Square.” This is precisely what the AKP wanted to avoid—not only the march itself, but the link with the workers’ struggles of the 1970s and the Gezi dynamic of 2013. Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International heard a riot police officer say on May 1 this year, “no people, no problems”—an indication of the temperament of the state. The next day, the courts dismissed a corruption probe begun by the former deputy chief prosecutor of Istanbul, Zekeriya Oz, against 60 suspects, including high-ranking members of the AKP. Instead, the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors opened an investigation of Oz, accusing the mercurial prosecutor of ties to the underground network run by the United States-based preacher Fethullah Gulen. Conciliatory statements about the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s role in Cyprus as well as on Turkey’s interest in normal relations with Israel indicate that the AKP has a long game in mind—its European and U.S. allies will forget about the tear gas. They will come around to the AKP’s necessity. This is the pessimistic view.

Ahmet Tonak is not despondent. He says that the AKP’s overall vote share declined from a high of 50 per cent to a low of 43 per cent. A small town in north-east Turkey, Ovacik, elected a Communist Mayor in the March elections. Fatih Macoglu is the first Communist elected official in Turkey. Nine hours drive south of Ovacik is Lice, where the Peace and Democracy Party’s Rezan Zugurli is the newly elected Mayor. At 25, Rezan Zugurli is a feminist and fierce defender of the rights of the Kurds. In the nearby village of Kocakoy, another Kurdish feminist, Berivan Elif Kilic, won the municipal election. She belongs to the People’s Democratic Party led by Sebahat Tuncel, who has been undaunted in her criticism of corruption and the war against the Kurds. These are the small voices of a possible future Turkish Left. The presidential election in August looms, and Erdogan has already indicated that he might run for the post. It would be of interest to see if the fledgling opposition is able to create a Gezi platform against him.