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Gezi at One: Rethinking the Legacy of the Protests

[Graffiti near Taksim Square, 1 June 2014. Image by michaket / Shutterstock.com.] [Graffiti near Taksim Square, 1 June 2014. Image by michaket / Shutterstock.com.]

One year ago, I asked the question: “Can the ‘Spirit of Gezi’ Transform Progressive Politics in Turkey?” As a sympathetic observer oscillating between optimism and despair in the aftermath of the brutal crackdown on Gezi, I offered a qualified response: “The question has two interrelated aspects: on the one hand, it is about transforming social interactions hitherto marked by social, cultural, and emotional gaps; on the other hand, it is about imagining the possibility of a new progressive politics that can pose an alternative to the AKP’s hegemony at the local and national levels.” The Owl of Minerva has not quite taken its flight. Nonetheless, one year is long enough to rethink the legacy of Gezi.

The past year has seen efforts to picture the Gezi protests, and the broader political landscape in which the protests took shape, in terms of the binary of government and opposition. The AKP government has used its propaganda machine to reduce Gezi to all that is evil. In response, some sectors of the opposition have sought to channel the protests’ momentum into a unified electoral front against the government. The dichotomous view of politics is perhaps unavoidable when the AKP and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, dominate public discussions and decision-making mechanisms. Yet there have been counter-efforts that affirm the decentralized nature of the so-called “spirit” of Gezi. I believe Gezi’s subversiveness and constructive potential come from its capacity to unsettle comfortable binaries. Even if the existing institutional landscape poses enormous difficulties for decentralized political action, reconstructing Turkish politics from multiple positions rather than trying to capture its institutional center may be a worthwhile project.  

The History of a Binary: The AKP and the Rest

The AKP managed to maintain its discursive hegemony for over a decade thanks to a powerful narrative, supportive media, and organic intellectuals. The party endorsed democracy, liberal political reform, neoliberal restructuring, and social conservatism as its platform in the early years. As the AKP government faced stiff and disloyal opposition from the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the military, and high courts, it emphasized a strong commitment to end the tutelary power of unelected bodies, and institute a truly civilian and democratic regime. The party’s message appealed not only to centrist and Islamist constituencies, but also to self-designated liberal audiences at home and abroad.

It was in this context that the AKP and supportive intellectuals produced a simplistic and highly selective narrative that sought to reinterpret the past to make sense of the present. The narrative in a nutshell is as follows. The history of Turkey is the struggle between two camps: the Westernized cultural, political, and economic elite that has always maintained its privilege through its grip on tutelary bureaucratic and military institutions; and the masses in the periphery whose yearning for recognition, justice, and prosperity has found expression in “democratic conservatism” throughout modern history, culminating in the AKP government. In an interesting re-appropriation of World-Systems categories, the first camp is identified with the “center” and the second camp with the “periphery” that slowly but surely moves towards the center. This selective reading lends itself to reductionist moral parables of victimizers and victims: the first camp stands for militant secularism, elitism, nationalism, and coup-mongering, while the second camp has always sought acknowledgment of religious identity, democratic participation, respect for minorities, and civilian government. Thus, the AKP’s secularist rivals have to bear responsibility for the country’s legacy of coups, discrimination, and human rights violations, while the AKP and its predecessors simply wash their hands of any wrongdoing.

Of course, the truth is much more complex. Many center-right or Islamist politicians found common cause with the interventionist military in its campaign to eradicate the Left in the 1960s and 1970s. Among today’s pro-AKP pundits and politicians who were public figures during the 1980 coup, the majority endorsed the military regime enthusiastically back then—including their erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gülen. While it is by now clear that the military and intelligence institutions, often in cahoots with paramilitary formations, targeted leftists, Kurdish political activists, journalists, and other opposition groups throughout the second half of the twentieth century, it is less clear that these were simply Kemalist conspiracies. In fact, well-known human rights violators have usually had affiliations with ultra-nationalist, Islamist, or center-right parties, or were protected by them. It still remains a mystery why the AKP’s police and intelligence agencies did nothing to prevent the murder of journalist Hrant Dink in downtown Istanbul in 2007. A number of police chiefs implicated in the incident have been promoted since then; the governor of Istanbul during the assassination, Muammer Güler, served as the AKP’s minister of the interior before and during the Gezi protests.

The claim that the AKP leadership constituted a counter-elite is only partially true. The party’s leadership and rank-and-file were familiar with the state; in fact, they were the state. Many of the leading figures had served under previous governments as ministers, spokespersons, or advisors, or at the municipal level as mayors—the case of Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul, being the most famous. The AKP’s minister of the interior between 2002 and 2007, Abdülkadir Aksu, had already occupied that post between 1989 and 1991 under a center-right government. Muammer Güler traveled from one city to another as governor for the past twenty years before his appointment as a minister. The governors and police chiefs who are under the spotlight for their handling of the recent protests have been in public service for decades. Not surprisingly, many of them have served in the Kurdish region, where they adopted a counter-insurgency mentality to deal with social movements. Thus, today’s heavy-handed police tactics reveal the AKP’s continuity with the state tradition that it has long claimed to replace.   

For all its selectivity, the dichotomous narrative was politically convenient for cementing the coalition of liberals and conservatives (among them the Gülen movement), as it successfully tapped into the public’s grievances against the arrogance and inefficiency of the civilian and military bureaucracies. It also helped to justify blatantly undemocratic and arbitrary policies and court rulings under the AKP. Why should critical journalists be jailed? Because they serve, willy-nilly, the coup coalition by investigating the government’s or the Gülen movement’s misdeeds. Why do many of the defendants in the famous coup trials face long and unnecessary pre-trial detention and arrest? No worries, they are the “bad guys” anyway. Plus, minor aberrations on Turkey’s path to civilian and law-abiding government can be overlooked. Why could the Dink assassination not be prevented? The assassins were motivated with a desire to destabilize the government, so instead of probing into police oversight, let us condemn the coup-mongers. There was no difficult question that could not be explained away with this narrative.

Since 2002, the AKP has consistently won by identifying the conflict between real and imagined threats in terms of sharp binaries: Kemalism, the bureaucratic-military tutelage regime, the Gezi protesters, and most recently the AKP’s former allies, the Gülen movement, have all been discredited as enemies of the AKP and its voters—not to mention the occasional demonization of Alevis, environmentalists, professional organizations, and so-called foreign conspirators. Prime Minister Erdoğan is particularly skillful in steering the course of public debates towards terms he chooses and binaries that play into his hand. The clearest example of this binary logic was observed in 2010, when the country found itself voting “yes” or “no” for a limited constitutional amendment that was packaged as the re-founding of the republic. The amendment went through, but it turned out that it was not quite the 1789 that the pro-government pundits claimed it to be: the AKP-dominated parliament scrapped the essentials of the amendment after the fallout with the Gülenists in late 2013, thereby identifying the next binary: government ministers vs. the pro-Gülen judges and prosecutors.

The Binary Exposed: The Gezi Protests

The government was caught by surprise when hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets in June 2013 after a brutal police crackdown on people who defended an urban park in Istanbul. The propaganda machine worked as usual, but it was somehow less convincing this time. Neither the words nor deeds of the protesters, let alone their sheer diversity, resembled those of a coup coalition. Government accusations that the demonstrations were funded by foreign intelligence agencies were laughed off by domestic and international observers. As six young men were killed by the police (and, at least in one case, by pro-government civilians) and thousands were injured between June and July 2013, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s claim that his government was the real victim at the hands of a conspiracy sounded cruel, callous, and cynical. Many liberal pundits deserted Erdoğan’s ranks. For all but the truly faithful (or opportunistic), the Hegelianism of the AKP years was coming to an end: Turkey was not on an irreversible road to freedom. The Turkish state’s international image shifted quickly from a civilian democracy ruled by a liberal-minded government to a police regime that did not shy away from using Orwellian doublespeak to legitimize its most reprehensible acts. Of course, the signs were already there for those who wanted to see, but Gezi made things less deniable.

The Gezi protests did not by themselves cause the breakup of the governing coalition, for the political and economic benefits of staying together exceeded any normative or humanitarian concern. However, the protests did expedite the in-fighting between the two wings of the conservative elite, which eventually split into two camps: the Gülenists and the Erdoğan supporters. First of all, the Gezi protests eroded liberal intellectuals’ and Western observers’ support for the government, which had been an essential component of the government’s claim to occupy the center-right of the ideological spectrum. Second, individuals at the higher echelons of power within the governing coalition found in Erdoğan’s violent response to the protests a good excuse to oppose his plans to become a super-president, and rumors of an “AKP without Erdoğan” began to circulate. After Gezi, an increasingly isolated Erdoğan had to fight a defensive fight for political power. Third, the contrast between the colorful, nonchalant, and peaceful Gezi demonstrators and government-sponsored police brutality dissolved the myth of the government defending the victimized underdog from elitist conspirators. The cynicism of the new official historiography was recognized for what it was.

Going Back to Binary Politics? The Post-Gezi Period

The AKP has thrived on head-on clashes. Once the AKP spokespersons redefine a potentially damaging issue in terms of a pro- vs. anti-government binary, they inevitably carry the day. Therefore, their public statements since the Gezi protests and the subsequent fallout with the Gülen movement have reflected a Manichean vision. The AKP and pro-government media managed to portray the biggest corruption scandal in Turkey’s modern history as a Gülenist coup against the government, and since then they have expanded the supposed network of conspiracy from their old enemies to their old friends, the far left to the bourgeoisie, Germany to Japan. The AKP’s victory in the March 2014 municipal election, as well as corruption-related polls, suggest that most voters either bought this narrative or did not let corruption allegations determine the vote choice. As of this writing, Erdoğan seems to be testing a new polarization tactic: blaming left-leaning Alevis for street protests.

However, it is not only government strategy that reduces politics to binaries. The momentum from the Gezi protests kept running up against the hard rock of political institutions: in a highly centralized system governed with an increasingly personalistic style, it is hard to resist the temptation to reduce progressive politics to opposition to the government. Not surprisingly, throughout the crises of the last year, most oppositional sectors aimed at unseating the AKP government, either through electoral victory or by urging corrupt, incompetent, and authoritarian ministers to resign. The municipal elections saw a deepening rift between those who advocated voting for the CHP as a first- or second-best option against the AKP, and those who preferred candidates that claimed to envision politics beyond the leading two parties. The conflict among the Gezi sympathizers was particularly bitter during the mayoral race for Istanbul, where the HDP nominated Sırrı Süreyya Önder, one of the original protesters in Gezi and a member of the parliament. This led to accusations and counter-accusations of dividing the anti-government vote. The result in the municipal elections was disappointing for everyone, but it is unclear whether a unified candidate would have performed better.

This is a paradox for the opposition: the central government leaves almost no space for political action outside of itself, yet efforts to capture the center result in an impoverished and polarized politics. A few men in Ankara make decisions in every imaginable public matter, from urban zoning and mining licenses to the intensity of police violence and the appointment of prosecutors; therefore, the opposition’s efforts to build a broad coalition to defeat those few men make sense. However, from a tactical point of view, an oppositional politics that is obsessed with the AKP and Erdoğan seems doomed to fail. This is not to say that the opposition should stop denouncing the violence, corruption, and institutional decay under the AKP; the government’s increasing control over the judiciary and the media mean that vocal opposition is needed more than ever. However, politics should not be only or primarily about what Erdoğan and his entourage say or do.

What needs to be done, then? One of the unforeseen consequences of Gezi, and perhaps its chief achievement, was that authorities lost their agenda-setting power, at least temporarily. The protesters were one step ahead of the game because their activism gave birth to new ideas about what the city should look like, how public space should be understood, and how political agency can be asserted. As the police were outnumbered on the streets, so were the politicians—government and opposition alike—outwitted in the face of new demands and modes of activism. Even as the police forced people out of major squares under threat of lethal violence, the activist energy shifted to public forums where local and national priorities could be discussed freely. However, the power of initiative slowly switched back to government politicians—ironically, as a result of graft and police brutality. More death and corruption meant more mourning and protest, which meant more polarizing statements by Erdoğan and more death, which meant more publicity and agenda-setting power for the government, and so on. It is the power of initiative that should be reclaimed.

To repeat: I do not recommend withdrawal from party politics, let alone insensitivity towards the injustice and violations committed by the AKP government. What I argue is that the negative project of monitoring and denouncing Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule should be supplemented by initiatives that say the first, rather than second, word on things that matter. Pushing for the decentralization of public discussions and decision-making procedures can be a welcome priority in a country where many (but by no means all) important issues, such as urban planning, education, and policing, should benefit from more input by those who are directly affected, and less interference by Ankara, let alone unaccountable national and multinational corporations. Political actors and social groups with different grievances and priorities should be open to establishing horizontal connections, but coalition building should not be obsessed with government change. The municipal elections could have been an opportunity to question existing municipal models and build alliances, not by nominating a single mayoral candidate across political parties, but by using the momentum from Gezi to come up with alternative principles for local government and take over at least some of the municipal councils—if political parties and most voters did not act as though they were general elections. Perhaps there will be future opportunities for mutual learning and cooperation across the broad spectrum of the opposition, especially around local issues.

Decentralization is challenging, in part because decision-making in Turkey is hyper-centralized, and in part because it is mistaken for parochialism or secessionism. It is possible that localization would reproduce socioeconomic privilege (especially in the western part of the country) at the expense of disadvantaged regions, but this is not a necessary outcome. Most local-level problems stem from deeper structural causes and far-reaching policy decisions, but their manifestations touch everyday life differently across localities. For example, the victims of urban renewal in Istanbul and subcontracting in the mining sector have different yet interconnected struggles. Furthermore, the events of the past year have made it clear that society is not neatly divided into the elite and the disadvantaged; rather, there are intersecting cleavages that require horizontal interconnections across struggles for justice and recognition. Against the logic of binaries, a new politics of plurality should be defended.

Reclaiming initiative, decentralizing struggles, and building horizontal connections: the events of the past year strengthen my conviction that these broad principles that came out of the Gezi protests can reconstruct progressive politics in Turkey and elsewhere.

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