[This article is part of a reflection on the "Afterlives of Gezi." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
Changes and continuities in the authoritarian character of Turkey's political regime during the AKP era (from 2002 to the present) have been subject to intense debate and controversy over the last decade. The disagreement among democratic forces seeking to reshape the unjust social and political landscape does not stem from a doubt about whether or not the political regime can be identified as authoritarian. The increasing concentration of political power and democratic backsliding is evidenced by a series of events that took place in the aftermath of the 2013 Gezi uprising. These included the transition from a highly restricted parliamentary regime to a super-presidential system; a state of emergency which remained in force for two years following the coup attempt in 2016 and which was used as pretext for a witch-hunt against all political opponents; blatant attacks on women’s rights; and the consistent violation of the right to vote and run for public office in Kurdish provinces through the replacement of elected mayors with government-appointed trustees (kayyum) in almost all municipalities won by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
This is by no means a complete portrayal of the wide repertoire of authoritarian statecraft in contemporary Turkey. Many other examples, from the strike bans imposed with the pretext of national security to the imprisonment of elected parliamentarians and opposition figures, can be added to this hideous list of events. Even the non-exhaustive list above leaves hardly any doubt about the regime’s authoritarian character. Therefore, the disagreement among democratic forces in Turkey has mainly to do with the key components and antecedents of authoritarianism that has marked the “late” AKP period, rather than its existence. This concern is significant for democratic politics since the way in which the roots and hallmarks of authoritarianism are appraised has been shaping anti-authoritarian imaginations and movements in Turkey.
Broadly speaking, two camps can be identified in this controversy. The first one holds that there has been a clear rupture between a “good” AKP period and a “bad” one, the former being replaced by the latter sometime around the mid-2010s, during or shortly after the party's third term in office (2011–2015). This “authoritarian turn,” it is argued, put an end to the AKP’s belle epoque, which was characterized by a rule-based—as opposed to a discretionary—economic management; a search for the displacement of the military and civilian veto players from the positions of power; and significant steps towards reconciling democracy, Islam, and a functioning market economy. The shift toward authoritarianism was evidenced by severe setbacks in all these realms, notably by systematic violations of the rule of law, separation of powers, and individual rights and freedoms.
The other camp tends to emphasize more continuities within the AKP era and the persistent character of substantive components of authoritarianism in Turkey. It reads the increasing use of punitive, oppressive, and arbitrary state power in the 2010s as an indication of authoritarian consolidation or transition to an exceptional form of state rather than an authoritarian turn. This position problematizes the many faces of authoritarianism such as ethno-nationalism, misogyny, and precarization, and seeks to challenge these deep-seated and overlapping systems of oppression. It tends to conceive the excess concentration of political power and the intensified encroachment by the government on individual rights and freedoms as only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger and multifaceted democratic deficit in Turkey.
The legacy of the Gezi uprising has played an important role in forging these two broad approaches to authoritarianism. Much has been written about the root causes of the Gezi uprising, about the grievances and demands prompting the protesters to take the streets, their use of social media, their class composition and cultural dispositions, the state's responses to the uprising, and the like. Yet the enduring impacts of its legacy on anti-authoritarian politics in Turkey have been less debated.
The Gezi experience has been significant for both of the positions I described above, but for different reasons. When appraising the implications and repercussions of the uprising, the former camp has focused more on the excess use of coercive state power during the protests and the violation of protesters’ civil rights. By putting the emphasis on the government’s reaction to the uprising, it has reckoned the Gezi uprising as one of the momentous events marking Turkey’s authoritarian turn—mainly as an epitome of the growing intolerance for political opposition and the government’s breach of the democratic contract.
The other camp has been inclined toward viewing the Gezi experience not only as a struggle against power holders but also as a process of negotiation among protesting groups themselves over what should be prioritized in an anti-authoritarian agenda. For this camp, the uprising has had long-lasting repercussions mainly because it made different groups’ grievances and demands more visible to each other. It unveiled some of the contradictions and tensions between those demands. Yet it also intensified the search for anti-authoritarian alliances going beyond a vague anti-Erdoğanism and targeted deep-seated nationalist and patriarchal structures in society and politics, as well as the impact of neoliberalization on the environment and working conditions.
Despite the gradual loss of momentum and the eventual dissolution of the Gezi movement, it has bolstered these two forms of anti-authoritarianism. The strand that prioritizes transforming formal-institutional settings, restoring the rule of law, and putting an end to the arbitrary use of political power has become more prominent in the aftermath of the uprising. It has sometimes been dominated by a nostalgic longing for the AKP’s “golden age.” Yet lessons derived from Gezi have also contributed to the rise of more substantive forms of anti-authoritarianism. Democratic forces with different priorities and demands have continued to put the pillars of authoritarianism under a practical microscope. In the ensuing years, the Kurdish movement, feminists, radical trade unions, and the LGBTQ+ movement have pushed the boundaries of political action and expanded the scope for more targeted and substantive anti-authoritarian politics. Despite the lack of consensus on priorities, the intensified attacks against different components of the democratic opposition and their hard-won achievements have made it essential to focus more on overlapping systems of oppression.
The anti-authoritarian resistance in Turkey neither started nor ended with the Gezi uprising. Yet the uprising left important marks upon Turkey's political landscape and continues to haunt political struggles. The challenge for the anti-authoritarian front is to build a concerted opposition embracing various demands and opening avenues for alternative political projects. The highly resilient and tenacious struggles for justice and equality are keeping this potential alive. It is this potential that bothers Turkey's authoritarian rulers the most.