Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s insistence on demolishing Gezi Park and building a shopping mall on it was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the causes behind the demonstrations that have shaken Turkey. The real reason is composed of three elements: rising authoritarianism, declining secularism, and stalled democratization.
On 28 December 2011 at 9:37 pm, the Turkish Air Force bombarded a group of Turkish citizens around a Kurdish village whose income draws on smuggling. Under government pressure, for almost two days the mainstream media could not report on the incident. Thirty-four civilians were killed.
Prime Minister Erdoğan, who only thirty-five days ago apologized on behalf of the Turkish state for a massacre that took place seventy-three years ago, refused to apologize. He was politically responsible for the incident.
Instead, Erdoğan decided to change the direction of public discussion by introducing a ban on abortion. He failed to enforce his decision, but succeeded in diverting the public’s attention.
11 May 2013 was the September 11th of Turkey. For the first time in Turkish history, an entire neighborhood of a town exploded as a result of two car bombs, killing fifty-one civilians and severely injuring one hundred and forty. The town of Reyhanlı is adjacent to the border with Syria. The increasing public pressure that followed focused on Erdoğan’s insistence on becoming an active player in Syria’s civil war.
To divert public attention, he decided to introduce a ban on buying and selling alcoholic beverages after ten pm in the country. Despite the fact that alcohol consumption is declining and that the tax on alcoholic beverages has increased by 655 percent in the last ten years, Erdoğan argued that the measure to ban buying and selling of alcoholic beverages for adults was aimed at keeping the young away from alcoholism.
As public criticism skyrocketed, Erdoğan alluded to Atatürk and his successor İsmet İnönü by saying, “How come the decision of two drunken men could be the basis of law, but not what our faith requires?” Regardless of one’s ideology, the founding father of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, still remains the hero of the only national story that the people of Turkey still believe in and mobilize around.
This unfortunate allusion brought the country to its limit. Then came Erdoğan’s announcement of plans to demolish Gezi Park and build a barracks on it. The barracks had been demolished in 1940. He said, “Of course we are not going to use it as a barracks. It will be a shopping mall, or could be used as a residential center.”
These last words broke a fault line in Turkish politics. People from all around Istanbul and from all ideologies began to occupy Gezi Park, the only green area of the most important center of the most important Turkish city: Istanbul.
The police attacked seven hundred protestors with tear gas, clearing the park, and burning the tents of occupiers. Calling the demonstrators “a few vagabonds,” Erdoğan said, “They can do whatever they want. We`ve made our decision, and we will do as we have decided."
The next day, seven thousand people came to the park and remained there until the dusk. A few minutes after the morning prayers, riot police attacked the sleeping demonstrators, emptying the park and fencing it with steel barricades. Seven hundred thousand people came back the next day, on 1 June 2013, marking the calendar as the first day of the new politics of Turkey. The police fled; the people occupied not only the Park, but also the largest square of the country, Taksim Square.
This was the first major defeat of Erdoğan’s government since it took power eleven years ago. The police could not enter Taksim Square for eleven days, and only took it back on the 11th of June, doing its best to gas the park to force people out. They failed.
In the meantime, Erdoğan tried to contain the situation by making hyperbolic speeches about the “small size of the barracks for a large shopping mall,” signaling that the barracks would be turned into neither a mall nor a residential tower. It was too late.
After 964 separate demonstrations dotted the country, Erdoğan’s solid legend evaporated as tear gas rained down upon people. Interestingly enough, he not only failed to convince his own followers, but he also failed to repress open criticism from his own party. The former minister of culture openly criticized the prime minister for his plan to demolish the park. Another AK Party MP, Erdal Kalkan, criticized Erdoğan for calling mass demonstrations against Occupy Gezi movement. For Kalkan, “no one should be acting like a sultan in a democracy.”
Recently, Erdoğan pushed towards a way out by calling for a plebiscite on the fate of Gezi Park. The Park is still occupied by thousands on the ground. A court decision stopped the demolition in the Park. Erdoğan has refused to apologize and change his decision.
As the stalemate continues, no one knows what is going to come next. The pro-Kurdish BDP is there, the anti-Kurdish MHP is in the Park, and the pro- and anti-Kurdish CHP is also with them. Everyone is there: from veiled women to conservative men with prayer beads, anarchists to greens, Generation X to Generation Y, all asking a simple question: Why?
As Erdoğan fails to present a convincing answer, he comes day by day closer to his own fall. The spring of Turkey has changed Turkish politics for good.