The great divide

Print edition : July 12, 2013

Riot police fire a water cannon at an anti-government protester at Taksim Square on June 16. Photo: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS

The police at Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 17 after the are was cleared of protesters. Photo: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a rally on June 16 in Istanbul. He said the protests were "coordinated inside and outside Turkey". Photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP

A protester at Gezi Park near a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, on June 13. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

The recent events in Turkey following Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarian actions have only polarised its society and politics further.

THE nationwide protests that have rocked Turkey since the end of May, claiming three lives and leaving more than 5,000 people injured, show no sign of ending. Even after the police forcibly ejected protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul and Kizilay Square in Ankara on June 15, protests are continuing in the major cities of the country. For a brief period it looked as if the situation was heading towards a bloody denouement, but the siege of Taksim Square ended temporarily. No deaths were reported from there. However, many protesters were hospitalised. Several doctors who attended to them at the protest sites were arrested on charges of sympathising with them. The government also declared the area closed for meetings and protests. It will, however, be difficult to keep the area cordoned off indefinitely. Riot police had to fire tear gas shells and use water cannons against thousands of protesters who tried to regroup and enter the area after they were dispersed. Trade unions announced a nationwide strike following the crackdown. In other words, Turkey seems to be heading for more political turbulence.

The recent events have polarised Turkish society and politics even further. The protesters, backed by the opposition parties, trade unions and civic groups, have refused to accept Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to end the political impasse and are insisting on his resignation. In a significant climbdown from his earlier hard-line position, he adopted a conciliatory tone after a meeting with the representatives of the protesting groups on June 14. He promised to put his redevelopment plans for Taksim Square and its green environment, symbolised by Gezi Park, on hold, pending a decision by a court on the issue. He also offered to hold a referendum in case the court ruled in favour of his redevelopment plans for Taksim Square. Erdogan told the representatives of the umbrella group “Taksim Solidarity” that he would abide by the court’s decision on the issue of redeveloping Gezi Park, one of the last wooded areas in the concrete jungle that Istanbul has become in the last 10 years.

Protests began nationwide after the local government in Istanbul sent its bulldozers to uproot the trees in Gezi Park to make way for a shopping mall, a condominium and a replica of the old Ottoman Barracks. Critics of Erdogan have often alluded to his ambition of being referred to as a “neo-Ottoman” ruler of Turkey, re-establishing the country’s influence in areas to which the Ottoman Empire extended.

Taksim’s emotional appeal

Taksim Square holds a special place in the hearts of many Turks. It is the hub of cultural activity and a place frequented by progressive groups. As many as 70 people were killed in a May Day rally in 1977 when troops opened fire on a crowd of more than half a million who had gathered in the square.

Erdogan’s plans to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus and name it after an Ottoman sultan known in history for slaughtering thousands of Alevis also angered the protesters. Alevis constitute around 20 per cent of Turkey’s population. They feel marginalised in Sunni-dominated Turkish politics. Along with other minorities like Kurds and Armenians, they joined hands with students, professionals and workers who spearheaded the protests in June.

Moderate Islamists, owing allegiance to the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, have also been expressing sympathy towards the protesters. The “Gulenists”, as his followers are called, are influential in Turkish politics and business and had played a big role in ensuring the victory of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in three consecutive elections. Now they and their leader have distanced themselves from Erdogan. The media conglomerate controlled by the Gulenists, which includes the influential Zaman group, has been increasingly critical of the Prime Minister’s authoritarian behaviour.

By June 15, the protests had spread to capital Ankara and 77 other cities. “Young people, you have remained there long enough and delivered your message,” Erdogan said in a nationally televised speech. He had earlier described the protesters as “looters”, “louts” and “extremists”. Only the day before, the Prime Minister had issued stern warnings to the protesters to clear out of Gezi Park or be forcefully ejected. Erdogan said that he had already given orders to his Interior Minister to clear up Taksim Square and the adjoining Gezi Park “within 24 hours”. Most of Taksim Square was cleared up by the riot police in the second week of June itself with the heavy use of tear gas and water cannons.

When it became clear that the protesters were in no mood to concede the Prime Minister’s demands, he ordered the police to clear Gezi Park, where hundreds of protesters had been camping for more than a fortnight. Erdogan had given the protesters the deadline of June 16 to vacate Gezi Park and Taksim Square. But the police, backed by armoured trucks, moved in on the night of June 15 to evict them.

Turkey has not witnessed this level of violence by the police force in decades. There have been reports of indiscriminate use of tear gas; in many instances the police directly fired shells at the demonstrators. Erdogan had issued a dire warning before the police action began: “Taksim Square must be evacuated, otherwise this country’s security forces know how to evacuate it.”

Authoritarian style

In a rally organised by the AK Party after the Taksim protesters rejected his appeal, Erdogan repeated his earlier allegation that the protests were part of a plot “coordinated inside and outside Turkey”. The Turkish newspaper Daily Zaman reported in the first week of June that 11 foreign nationals with diplomatic passports, among them an Indian, had been arrested on charges of instigating the demonstrators. In an apparent effort to rally his conservative base, the Prime Minister reiterated his allegations that the protesters targeted women wearing Islamic headscarves and violated the sanctity of mosques by wearing shoes and drinking alcohol inside them.

The pious and often sanctimonious Erdogan has a serious dislike for alcohol. As Mayor of Istanbul, while beautifying the city, he was instrumental in the municipality setting up many fine restaurants catering to the common man. But Erdogan saw to it that even beer was not on the menu. Many Turks fear that the AK Party is trying to bring nationwide prohibition through the backdoor. A Bill was recently introduced in parliament regulating the sale of alcohol.

Some of the government’s recent decisions and Erdogan’s statements have not helped to allay the fears among secularists. In a parliamentary debate, Erdogan referred to a “pair of drunks” whose laws “are considered more sacred” in Turkey than those decreed by Islam, which he said, were “deemed more objectionable”. Secular Turks conclude that the two drunks the Prime Minister referred to are Kemal Ataturk and his successor, Ismet Inonu. Ataturk is constitutionally recognised as the “father of the nation”. Erdogan recently urged Turks fond of drinking to do so at home and went on to add that he considered all those who drank as “alcoholics”. He later amended his statement and said that he considered only those who drank regularly as “alcoholics”.

The Turkish government’s heavy-handed response to the protests has elicited little criticism from its Western allies, especially the United States. Turkey is the linchpin of the West’s game plan to effect a regime change in Syria. The White House spokesman reiterated that Turkey “was an important NATO ally and a key player in the region”. The other allies of the West in the region, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are authoritarian monarchies. For these countries, only the Syrian people have the right to protest on the streets and resort to violence against the state. They would not like their citizens to emulate the actions of the young people in Turkey.

Until last year, Erdogan was strutting on the international stage as a champion of the Arab Spring and a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause. Now, the ground has shifted under him. Turkey’s much-vaunted policy of “zero problems with neighbours” is in a shambles. From being a staunch ally, Syria has become an enemy. Erdogan had requested the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to install Patriot missile batteries on the border with Syria in preparation for the war he wants to start.

Turkey’s relations with Iran and Armenia are back to square one. Only relations with Israel, a long-term strategic ally of Turkey, are getting back to normal. Relations between the two had become frosty after Israeli security forces raided a Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish nationals in the process.

Most of the Islamist militias waging war against the Syrian people have their bases in Turkey. Al Qaeda-linked extremists come from far-off places like Chechnya, the Balkans and western Europe to Turkey to train and then cross over to Syria. According to reports, Syrian forces have killed more than 8,000 foreign fighters inside the country. The overwhelming majority of the Turkish population is against Turkey going to war with Syria or interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbours.

The major grouse of those protesting against the AK Party is about the growing authoritarianism and the creeping Islamisation of politics. This trend, according to most observers, got accelerated after Erdogan got a clear majority in the elections held in 2007 and a landslide victory in 2011. He seems to have taken it as a mandate to impose his Islamist world view on Turkish society. With the Turkish army no longer posing a threat to civilian rule, Erdogan set about reshaping Turkish politics. Sections of the media critical of the ruling party were muzzled.

Turkey has the dubious distinction of being the country with the largest number of incarcerated journalists. Media censorship continues despite the democratic transition. Under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, any citizen can be arrested if the state deems that the “Turkish Nation” has been insulted. The Turkish media have been so cowed down that local television channels did not dare give live coverage of the protests in Taksim Square for several days.

The police arrested some 50 lawyers who were among those issuing a statement demanding the release of their clients arrested while protesting in Taksim Square and other cities. They were released after 10,000 lawyers turned up to protest against the arrests. Though the Turkish government has signed a cease-fire agreement with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) promising greater autonomy and cultural freedom, more than 8,000 pro-Kurdish politicians, lawyers, academics and members of the media have been arrested since 2009.

Though the economy has registered an impressive growth—per capita GDP has tripled in the last 10 years —not all sections of Turkish society have benefited from the neoliberal policies of the AK Party. The two major trade union confederations in the country went on strike in the first week of June in solidarity with those protesting in Taksim Square and other parts of the country. Turkey’s labour laws were drafted in 1980 when the junta was in power. Workers’ rights are heavily circumscribed under these laws. Moreover, education and health services are getting increasingly privatised. The economy has been only growing at 3 per cent in 2013. Alarm bells are ringing as the Turkish authorities are aware that the country’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, tourism and small industry.