A Social Breakdown in Turkey

Recent demonstrations have revealed a polarized Turkish society. The only way forward is through genuine dialogue.

Turkey is at a turning point. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) incumbency, the country has been transforming. The AKP’s progressive policies have carried the side effect of making the country’s fault lines overt. Political dissent that has been publicly on display is the manifestation of this side effect. The material conditions for a solution are already being formed in Turkey. Any analysis of these protests should be able to transform political dissent into a concrete policy that takes different popular dynamics into account. The political future of the ruling AKP and the opposition is at a cross-roads.

How did the Protests Develop?

What began as an outcry against a local project in Istanbul has snowballed into widespread anger against the Turkish government. Protests began in Gezi Park on May 27, 2013, when approximately sixty protesters reacted to an ongoing construction plan that was misunderstood by demonstrators. According to Kadir Topbaş, mayor of Istanbul, the work was neither about the building of a shopping mall, nor the demolition of the park, but about the displacement of trees. The plan was announced to the public after demonstrations over the protection of a park turned into a movement against the Turkish prime minister and the AKP government. What was perceived as a heavy-handed response by the police has intensified the rage of street clashes. Consequently, unrest has spread all over the country.

During the second week of protests, demonstrations protecting trees or the park itself developed into a social breakdown. It is important to focus on the sociological aspects of the protests in order to be prepared for the long-term consequences of such a breakdown. Therefore, we need to analyse who the protesters are and what they are asking for.

The General Atmosphere of the Protests

The social aspect of the protests is a lot clearer than its political side. Protesters consist of people from different backgrounds and ideologies. Practically, the protesters can be categorized under three different layers that do not share a common ground under normal conditions. What binds these protesters together are their anti-Erdogan stance and their reaction to the excessive use of force by police at the start of the demonstrations. Therefore, their alliance is temporal.

The common ground for these protests is the rising fear and ignorance of some groups in Turkey due to the polarized structures of society that are Alevi-Sunni, Islamist-secularist, and Turk-Kurd. The AKP symbolizes the Sunni, Islamist, and Turkish side of this bipolar structure that creates the feeling of defeat and despair for other camps. The main reason for this feeling is the failure of the opposition to represent the voice of the masses in Turkey.

In a political system like Turkey's, the prime minister of a country does not directly communicate with the masses as there are intermediate mechanisms like professional bodies, trade unions, and various NGOs that function as the voice of the people. In Turkey, those mechanisms do not function properly and people feel the necessity to express themselves on the streets. The dissent should not be interpreted as a list of demands regarding the political system, but rather as the expression of the protesters’ rejections of the increasing intervention into their lifestyle.

It is also noteworthy to mention the previous month's political developments in Turkey in order to have a better understanding of what has been happening. It is clear that protesters have a feeling of despair, precipitated by a decade of AKP rule. The recent political unrest should be seen as the last brick on the wall. The Turkish government passed a law regulating the sale hours of alcohol, which is common practice in the United States and in Europe.

However, unlike those western countries, intervention regarding alcohol sales in Turkey has sociological connotations that were overlooked by the government. Due to the intensification of a polarized Turkish society, alcohol has turned out to be a matter of identity in the country. Hence, the passing of this law was considered as a direct attack and intervention against the lifestyle of certain portions of society.

Furthermore, the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorous was not well received by the Alevi community. Named after the ninth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Yavuz Sultan Selim, the bridge triggered collective memories of oppression under his rule. Today's Alevi identity is established through the narratives of this collective memory.

Finally, the excessive use of force by police caused a wave of indignation in Turkish society. The failure of the opposition to effectively represent these groups, as well as the lack of strong leadership, led the protesters to feel that their voices were not being heard. Secularism has become a significant part of their identity, and any intervention in that realm has led them to take on a reactionary position.

Having portrayed the general atmosphere, we can focus on the participant groups.

Taksim Solidarity and Concerns About Lifestyle

Taksim Solidarity Platform is the first and core layer of the protesters. The recent urban transformation in Istanbul brought the group's members together. They created the platform in order to unite their voices and to take part in the decision-making process that concerns their cities. Most members of this layer are youth from upper middle- or upper-class families with graduate degrees from reputable universities. They were the catalysts behind the protests and represent the core of the contemporary alliance.

During the last decade, members of the platform supported the government’s fight against military tutelage. In a 2010 referendum, they differentiated themselves with their "Yetmez ama Evet" (Yes, but not enough) campaign when the Turkish government wanted to change the militaristic spirit of the constitution. The Taksim Solidarity Platform does not consider the political opposition parties to be a functional agent for their demands, and therefore they are not represented in the political arena.

Kemalist Outbreak (Once Again)

The constituency of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), commonly identified as Kemalist, makes up the second layer. It would be wrong to evaluate this layer as homogenous, as it brings together different political viewpoints. The older generation of these groups supported protesters through trumpeting with pots and pans from their balconies. In Turkish history, the demands and sensitivities of the Kemalists had been protected for over 80 years at the expense of Islamists.

Since the AKP came to power, Kemalists started to voice their discontent and fought for the preservation of their privileges in various domains. The more they lost their privileges, the more radical their stance became in the political arena. The CHP constituency has never taken a democratic stance since that would be synonymous with losing the power they had been holding onto.

This layer dominates the demonstrations all over the country and chants slogans in favor of Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Although Kemalists chant slogans such as “Dictator Tayyip,” they have never given up the militaristic tone in their slogans with various eulogies to the army. They call themselves the soldiers of Atatürk. There is nothing democratic in their demands, which display a nostalgia for their previously privileged positions. They are convinced that it is not possible to bring down the government in democratic ways; a coup d'etat is always an option for the CHP.

Another distinctive group of the second layer is the Alevi community. Their collective identity is built upon anti-Sunni characteristics. They are prone to interpret any policy implemented by the AKP as a direct attack on their communal identity. For instance, they consider the government’s policy on Syria solely as a Sunni approach.

A critical issue for the majority of the Alevi community is the ongoing Kurdish peace process. The peace process between the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK) imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the Turkish government has been occupying the political agenda of the country since early 2013. In order to convince the PKK to agree to a ceasefire, a letter by Öcalan was read aloud to a crowd on Newroz Day. Despite the emphasis on many different ethnic and ideological groups in his letter, Öcalan neglected to mention the Alevi community. This was interpreted as a re-union of a Sunni alliance between Kurds and Turks against the Alevi community.

Finally, the naming of third bridge as Yavuz Sultan Selim led the Alevis to become outspoken critics of the AKP government. Similar to other groups — although they constitute approximately 10% of the society — their political representation is very weak. Alevis are the backbone of the CHP. However, they do not think that they are represented well enough in the party. The CHP has never made their rights or demands a part of its political agenda.

Marginalized Groups

The last and third layer of the protesters is a black box. This group constantly fights against the police. Although the police began retreating, this layer of protesters have continued to battle the police forces with stones and makeshift barricades in the vicinity of Dolmabahce Palace, near the prime minister's office.

The existence of those marginal groups justifies the presence of the police since their actions turn out to be criminal cases. Most people in this layer are already members of an outlawed marginal group, such as the DHKP-C, which is already inclined to use terror tactics. Therefore, the separation of these groups from the core of protests is crucial. Otherwise, it will be challenging to transform the protests into concrete democratic policies.

The Need for Dialogue

A common ground for the sake of a democratic culture in Turkey can only be achieved through a healthy dialogue between the government and protesters at the core of Taksim Gezi Park. On June 12, Erdogan met with a group from the Taksim Solidarity Platform in order to establish the foundation for dialogue. It remains to be seen how these efforts will develop. The objections of the platform have to be taken into consideration by the government. Those objections have to be transformed into a policy in order to reach a more democratic understanding. This Taksim Solidarity Platform, which has the fewest number of protesters, cannot tip the government into a crisis but this could very well be a trial for the AKP's commitment to democracy.

The objections by the Kemalists, on the other hand, directly concern the opposition. The CHP and other opposition parties have to reconsider their strategies and policies. Otherwise, protests will lead to the emergence of a new opposition in Turkey. If the masses are on Turkish streets, it will officially be a crisis for the country. The future of politics in Turkey depends on the future of these demonstrations. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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