Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Turkey: Protests Taking New Shape

Originally published by

Turkey: Protests Taking New Shape

by Justin Vela

Despite smothering government pressure, critics of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are finding new ways to make their voices heard.

Many say their goal now is to channel the energy of the Occupy Gezi protests into a wider opposition movement, with an aim of mounting opposition to Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in local elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015, but without joining arms with any existing political force. Or resorting to violence.

The protests, initially aimed at stopping a development project for Gezi Park, a lone strip of greenery in congested central Istanbul, quickly evolved into a national outpouring of grievances against Erdoğan’s heavy-handed governing style. Smaller protests broke out across the country, but limited local press coverage means verifying their size and scope remains difficult. Five people have been killed and thousands injured in the weeks of clashes between protesters and police.

The Istanbul protesters were finally forcibly removed from Gezi Park on June 15, though sporadic attempts to reenter the area still occur. In Ankara, heavy clashes between police and demonstrators continued throughout the night of June 17.

The violence has altered the protests’ imperative, some participants say. On June 18, there were only silent protests of residents standing still in various places of Istanbul and Ankara; some staring at a Turkish flag.

"In the perspective of the protesters, it should settle down in order to sustain itself because people are tired, physically and mentally," said Levent Ince, a 27-year-old protester in Ankara.

Instead of "physical resistance," the anti-government protesters could move into a stage of "informative resistance,” he asserted.

"If we can inform other people who were somewhat supporting us and watching us and have their full support maybe this could evolve into something else," Ince said.

A new platform called "Gezi to the Parliament” will aim to help establish independent parliamentarians, he continued. "It is an open platform that people can find representatives and vote and rank the representatives, and the highest ranking representatives [go] to the parliament as an independent MP," he said.

In Istanbul, 27-year-old Zeki, a protester who asked to be identified only by one name because he is worried the authorities might "ring my bell,” is now more focused on the local elections than retaking Gezi Park.

"It’s my concentration from now on. I am dreaming about a huge campaign that will explain what is going on now,” he said. The protests succeeded in making people from all walks of life more engaged in Turkish society, Zeki claimed, and the process should continue.

The only involvement of traditional opposition political parties – the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has backed the demonstrators – would perhaps be that they would not run a candidate, he added. Other protesters are similarly adamant about maintaining a distance from these groups.

Yet, at the same time, with no formal organization to coordinate their plans, protesters recognize that their capability for political opposition to the AKP is limited. "We don't have anything to replace the government," Ince said. "We can't do anything with Erdoğan or without."

Though scattered, such young, relatively affluent and educated protesters could prove a source of trouble for the government, some local commentators believe. “My gut says they will recede with ever-increasing resentment in order to repeat any time anywhere, in any way,” said noted Turkish political commentator Cengiz Candar about the protests.

One contribution to any such process could be what Ince and Zeki describe as the loss of many protesters’ fear of the state. Said Ince: “I don't mind the gas anymore."

The Turkish government has sought to legitimize the violent response of police to the Gezi Park protest and authorities’ subsequent actions by claiming that the protesters were themselves dangerous. On June 16, Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor of Istanbul, claimed that protesters used lethal weapons and two members of the state security forces were injured.

On June 17, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinç warned that the army, as well as more heavily armed police forces, could be brought in to quell further unrest.

Hundreds were detained over the weekend, with many of those arrested, according to Amnesty International. “Our concern was that people had been held in irregular places of detention, basically outside police stations … for a number of hours without having access to lawyers,” said Andrew Gardner, a Turkey researcher for Amnesty International. Gardner added that the whereabouts of some of the detained people are still not clear.

Those measures continued in Istanbul on June 18, with the detention of 193 individuals, including members of the outlawed Marxist-Leninist Communist Party; 22 are accused of having organized “violent protests” and urging others to join “illegal demonstrations,” news outlets reported. Raids were also carried out at two media outlets, Atılım Newspaper and Etkin News Agency, The Hürriyet Daily News reported.

Raids also took place in Ankara, but specifics were not available.

Zeki admitted some people enjoyed the conflict with the police, but said he never saw a gun at the protests. While protesters were at times angry and had to defend themselves, including throwing back tear-gas canisters at police, the strongest show of resistance the majority showed was to man barricades around Taksim, he claimed.

Like other protesters, he denied knowledge of the people seen throwing Molotov cocktails at police in Istanbul on June 11. The government has rejected categorically protester allegations that the individuals were police provocateurs.

Erdoğan on June 18 praised security forces for showing restraint while sweeping protesters from Gezi Park and Taksim Square, adding that police officers enjoyed a natural right to use pepper spray. "Our police have taken a democratic stance against systematic violence and have successfully passed the test of democracy,” Today's Zaman quoted Erdoğan as saying.

Editor's note: Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.