Few observers, if any, would have predicted that demonstrations that commenced at the Gezi Promenade of Taksim Square at the end of May over plans to build a shopping mall in the area would continue to capture the attention of both domestic and international audiences today. They are presenting a challenge to the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose appearance of invincibility has been considerably tarnished. At the time of writing, protestors were continuing to stage stand-ins under the watchful eyes of frustrated but somewhat relaxed police officers.

Turkish authorities are used to demonstrations by students, labour unions, and others, which they quell with clubs and tear gas. As recently as 1 May, the governor of Istanbul had forbidden unions to celebrate May Day in Taksim Square, preventing those who insisted anyway by using sticks and volatile chemicals. Such “routine” events hardly capture global attention; life returns to normal in a day. It is possible that this time, the government thought that it could also easily terminate this protest with the usual harsh measures. To its surprise, the police encountered not only strong but mainly passive resistance. The numbers rushing to support the initial adventurers grew rapidly rather than declined.

What was different this time? Polls conducted among those who rallied on the Square show that a large majority had not participated in a political rally before and that only a small minority belonged to a political party. Many participants are students or well-educated young professionals.  Such a mix of backgrounds is atypical in Turkey’s confrontation-driven street politics that have usually been the domain of radical non-democratic organisations of the far right and left. Why has this unusual group taken to the streets?

Interviews with those participating at the demonstrations in Istanbul and sympathy rallies in other cities bring out two major complaints: the failure of government to consult the citizens in projects that affect their daily lives, and the implementation of a number of steps that are judged to intrude into the private lives of citizens. The first point concerns differing understandings of democracy between the Prime Minister and the protestors. Erdoğan perceives democracy as receiving a mandate to rule the country for four years as he sees fit through elections, sometimes known as the “trustee” orientation. The protestors, on the other hand, conceptualise democracy as an ongoing process of mutual consultation between the occupants of elective office and the citizens. It is interesting that the protestors were neither partisan nor did they demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. They wanted to be listened to. Their only concrete demand was that the decision to reconstruct a military barracks on what is now a promenade be suspended to protect a rare green space in the city centre.

The second point relates to the proper scope of political intervention. In recent times, enacted legislation and speeches of the Prime Minister have delved into areas of life that the demonstrators felt were matters of individual choice. These encroachments have included such things as new restrictions on the sale of alcohol, the Prime Minister’s pronouncement that anyone who imbibes is an alcoholic, his insistence that all married couples have three children, and the expansion of religion courses in primary and secondary education curricula. Looking at these objections, one might get the impression that this is the old laicist-religious conservative cleavage that has characterised Turkish politics for the entire life of the republic. Yet this would be inaccurate. The demonstrators included some religious groups and many others who did not share the same political preferences. Their mutual respect for differences was epitomised on the occasion of Friday prayers where those not praying formed a circle around those who did, to insure that they could pray undisturbed. They also engaged in the unheard of exercise of cleaning the garbage from the areas where they had demonstrated the day before.

It seems that these developments point to the emergence of a new political animal, a third kind so to speak, in Turkish politics: the socially engaged individual citizen who expects a government to be open to regular communication with citizens, more responsive to citizen preferences, and more respectful of the individual’s privacy. Expressed differently they want more refined democratic governance: limited not interventionist, pluralistic not monistic, inclusionary not exclusionary. Does the government, especially the Prime Minister, see it this way too?


When protests started, the government initially seemed confused. Neither the crowd nor its manner of behaviour looked familiar. It did not take the authorities long, however, to decide that challenging the authority of the government could not be ignored in a country where “rule of law” prevailed. Crowds were gassed and clubbed and tents some had set up in the promenade were burned. Istanbul’s governor explained that the protest movement was led by suspicious elements who were well known to the authorities, and good citizens should stay home. To the surprise of the authorities, however, the crowds returned in larger numbers. Furthermore, many citizens appeared to feel that disproportionate force had been used to drive the demonstrators off Taksim Square, and “public enemy” explanations were found not to be particularly persuasive.

During the next two weeks, what had now become a crisis was managed under the leadership of the Prime Minister, who pursued a two-pronged strategy of simultaneously communicating with the protestors and discrediting them. In implementing the first part, Erdoğan refrained from using coercive instruments of the state to vacate the Square and similar places in other cities, saying that protestors should leave voluntarily. He seemed open to hearing the demands of protesters, holding long chats with some prominent demonstrators. He announced that the barracks would be built but as a city museum; and conceded that he would await the administrative court decision regarding zoning changes and building permits before implementing the project. After these gestures and reminding all that he did not have unlimited patience (i.e. that the option of using force was never away), he asked that everyone clear the Square. After allowing little time for vacating the area, the police moved in and cleared it through well established methods.

In carrying out the second part of his strategy, he developed a set of arguments intended to discredit the protests and protestors, a path that was typical of old politics. In essence, it promoted political polarisation between his supporters and those sympathising with the protestors, whom he tried to associate with the opposition. To begin with, Erdoğan argued that there was a conspiracy to stop Turkey’s enviable economic and political ascent in the international arena. It seems that although many internal and external actors were involved in it, it was the “interest lobby”, meaning actors who benefit from having the interest rates remain high, that led the list. Other actors, whose identity could only be inferred, seemed to include many of Turkey’s friends and allies. The Prime Minister insinuated that conspirators also included mainly Istanbul-based old industrial conglomerates that have shied away from an expressly pro-government orientation. One could not be too careful, he said, about these ill-intentioned elements.

External threat arguments were complemented by disinformation about the protestors. It was rumoured, for example, that those who had taken refuge in a mosque down the hill from Taksim Square had consumed alcoholic beverages and engaged in sex on the premises, an accusation that the Imam of the facility immediately denied. Similarly, it was said that a conservatively dressed young lady with a baby had been attacked, beaten and rendered unconscious by 100 bare-bodied men wearing leather gloves who had then proceeded to urinate on her. Observers have condemned the incident but have expressed surprise that in a city where almost every public arena is surveyed by cameras, none of these 100 men have been seen by other witnesses, identified, or caught. The protests have also been attributed to the doings of the major opposition party. The Prime Minister recalled the Republican People’s Party’s rule as years of do- nothing administrations that exposed people to undeserved deprivations and said the party was jealous of the success of his government and was trying to block further progress to an even more prosperous Turkey.

Finally, to show that he continued to enjoy the support of the masses, Erdoğan organised big rallies in major towns, starting with Ankara and Istanbul and then moving to conservative centres in Central and Eastern Turkey, popularising some of the themes above.

The government’s reaction to the challenge facing it is reminiscent of the efforts of the right wing Nationalist Front Coalitions of 1973–80, who tried to tighten their ranks by pursuing polarisation policies in the face of strong opposition. In this way, they hoped to reinforce the commitment of the supporters to their current parties and the status quo, and they seem to have achieved this at least in the short term.

The Turkish government is encountering a challenge from forces that its own economic success strengthened during the last ten years. Its responses to what amounts to a demand for a more refined democracy have so far been met with not so well-refined responses. But some questions still need to be asked and answered: Have the recent events produced irreversible changes in Turkish politics? Will the government be able to reconstitute the status quo? What will the effects of these changes in Turkey’s domestic and external relations be? The future of Turkish politics depends on the answers to these questions, which remain to be seen.

(We acknowledge the kind co-operation of the German Marshall Foundation of the UnitedStates in our publication ofthis article.)

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