[This article is part of a reflection on the "Afterlives of Gezi." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
Eight years ago, in late May 2013, people in Turkey woke up to the news that the tents of peaceful protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park were set on fire by the police. What followed was months of mass protests. The Gezi Park protests initially aimed at protecting the Gezi public park in the middle of Istanbul from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s plan to eliminate it and build a shopping mall in its place. However, these local protests quickly evolved into mass protests that spread to 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, after the police intervention against those peacefully protesting in the park. This was another, but harsher, example of how the government’s and local authorities’ increasing interventions into daily life, ranging from rearranging cities and public spaces via urban development policies to policing alcohol consumption, were also at stake. In other words, the rising authoritarianism in the country was at stake.
It is often thought that the Gezi Park protests were a turning point both with regards to the nature of street protests in Turkey and overall Turkish politics. While the opposition and former protesters who participated in the events still commemorate it on the anniversary of the start of the protests, the government usually refers to the events during times of rising contention, such as during the recent protests of the faculty and students of Boğaziçi University. For the AKP government, it is invoked as a source of fear in order to remind its supporters what is at stake and keep them consolidated.
The Gezi Park protests, which have been compared to the 1968 movement in Europe, to Occupy Wall Street, and to the Indignados of Spain, has often been referred to as something utterly new in Turkey’s political history. However, it is crucial to understand the peculiar characteristics of protests or social movements, since an overemphasis on “[t]he search for the ‘new’ can turn our gaze from the history and agency of political actors and downplay the importance of movement culture in shaping collective action.” In this regard, I consider the Gezi Park protests as a cycle of protest, and analyze it in terms of movement continuity, and thus in relation to earlier cycles of protests, especially the Global Justice Movement.
A cycle of protest mainly depends on interactions among protesters, as well as between them and adversaries and/or third parties. In this regard, one thing differentiating the Gezi Park protests from earlier cycles of protests, such as the Global Justice Movement of the early 2000s, has been the wide-spread repression from the government which took several forms. Representing a moment that shook the AKP’s previously “uninterrupted hegemony,” the Gezi Park protests were met with harsh reaction from the authorities, particularly then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, which in turn deepened social polarization.
While several forms of repression were used by the government—ranging from policing to legal actions against the protestors—one repressive form, namely “rhetorical vilification,” sheds light on what was to become a form of populist rhetoric for Erdoğan. In a delegitimizing manner, the protestors were first described as “looters.” On various occasions, Erdoğan accused them of immoral and unethical behavior, ranging from drinking alcohol in public to entering mosques with beer bottles to physically attacking and harassing women in headscarves. Pro-government circles, who considered Erdoğan a “tall man under constant attack,” regularly framed the protestors as “the enemy.” In this regard, they considered the protests as a “sinister international and national plot to oust Erdoğan and his government by non-electoral means,” likely drawing from recent discourse surrounding the Arab Spring. According to research published by the Guardian (2019), Erdogan’s rhetoric became “very populist” as of 2014, just after the Gezi Park protests. This makes sense, as populist discourse can be claimed to have the “greatest purchase as an active political force in moments of crisis, when popular sovereignty, and national identity itself, are open to new interpretations.”
Besides the increased use and intensification of populist rhetoric, another move by the AKP government shaped the nature of formal and informal politics in subsequent years: organizing top-down counter-protests. Less than a week after the start of the protests, Erdoğan said, “At least fifty per cent of the country [referring to his voter base] are at home now, who we are having trouble keeping off the streets. We say to them, ‘For mercy’s sake, be patient!’” Such a statement revealed the plebiscitarian relationship between what Erdoğan saw as “the people” and his rule. It also not only delegitimized the protests, but also further polarized society by threatening the protesters. What followed were the “Respect for the National Will” rallies.
On 15 and 16 June2013, the ruling party organized mass rallies in Ankara and Istanbul, which were followed by several in Anatolian cities, along with several others abroad, some of which Erdoğan attended by teleconferencing. During these rallies, Erdoğan underlined that it was his supporters—those people who gathered in Sincan on 15 June, for example—who were the true people of Turkey, and not the protesters at Gezi Park: “Those who want to see, understand Turkey, should come here to Ankara Sincan to see it. If there is anyone who wants to hear the voice of democracy, law and national will, please come to Ankara.” Accordingly, “the people of Turkey [were] protect[ing] their democracy and willpower” (against the domestic and foreign plotters. On several occasions during these rallies,—which millions of people attended, or were “bused in” to, according to some sources—Erdoğan insisted upon the ballot box as the venue to solve problems, delegitimized ongoing mass protests, and underlined the city squares allocated by law to mass demonstrations as the places to make critical claims heard.
In 2012, following student mobilization and subsequent police repression in one of the major universities, the late professor of law and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Burhan Kuzu, noted that under their rule the “military went back to its barracks, the judiciary is normalized; there is only the ‘streets’ now.” This statement can be interpreted as a sign of two things. First, it shows how the government considers street protests as a “threat,” instead of a normal and ordinary form of political participation. Second, it gives us some clues about the approach of the government towards street politics: the government managed to “normalize” or “tame” the military and the judiciary, which were the main actors of “old Turkey.” Now it was the turn of the streets to be “tamed.”
The AKP government turned a crisis into an opportunity right after the Gezi Park protests that quickly spread around the country and turned into anti-government protests. Seizing the opportunity, the government took a bolder step towards populism, as its rhetoric became “very populist” and the streets were “hijacked” from actors demanding democracy. According to data from the Varieties of Democracy (VDem) project, the level of mobilization for autocracy in Turkey significantly exceeded the level of mobilization for democracy in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests. It is possible to see today that while the protests of some groups are repressed by the police, some other groups’ activities are facilitated, to use Charles Tilly’s terminology. The dynamics of the street politics and protests are not static though, thus the overall situation might change. The initial momentum created by the Boğaziçi University protests, for example, boosted the number of protests organized only in January 2021 by almost fifty percent compared to the average number of protests in 2020, according to ACLED data. But we will have to wait and see if this will have a long-lasting impact on the levels of mobilization for democracy or not.
 Christina Flesher Fominaya, “Debunking Spontaneity: Spain's 15-M/Indignadosas Autonomous Movement,” Social Movement Studies, Vol. 14, no. 2 (2015), pp. 142-163.
 Selin Bengi Gumrukcu, “The Rise of a Social Movement: The Emergence of Anti‐Globalization Movements in Turkey,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), pp.163-180; and “Diffusion of Protests: Anti/Alter-globalization Movements and Gezi Park Protests in Turkey,” in Petia Gueorguieva and Anna Krasteva (eds.), La Rue et L’e-Rue. Nouvelles Manifestations Citoyennes (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015). Cycle of protest, defined as “a phase of heightened conflict and contention across the social system,” is a concept employed to analyze the evolution of movement participation and levels of mobilization. By providing the opportunity to consider the role of time and space in contentious politics, this concept allows contention to be considered as a multi-actor process without focusing on one actor. See Sideny Tarrow, Power in movement, social movements and contentious politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Ruud Koopmans, “Protest in time and space: The evolution of waves of contention,” in D.A. Snow, S.A. Soule & H. Kriesi (eds.), The Blackwell companion to social movements (New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp. 19-47.
 Ergin Bulut and Erdem Yörük. “Mediatized Populisms | Digital Populism: Trolls and Political Polarization of Twitter in Turkey,” International Journal of Communication Vol. 11 (2017), pp. 4093-4117.
 Lisel Hintz, “Adding Insult to Injury: Vilification as Counter-Mobilization in Turkey’s Gezi Protests,” POMEPS Studies Vol. 20 (2016), pp. 56-61.
 Bahadir H. Türk, “‘Populism as a medium of mass mobilization’: The case of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” International Area Studies Review Vol. 21, No. 2 (2018), pp. 150-168.
 Ergun Ozbudun, “AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan's Majoritarian Drift,” South European Society and Politics Vol. 19, No.2 (2014), pp. 155-167.
 Paul Lewis, Caelainn Barr, Seán Clarke, Antonio Voce, Cath Levett and Pablo Gutiérrez, “Revealed: Rise and Rise of Populist Rhetoric” (Guardian, 6 March 2019).
 Joseph Lowndes, “From founding violence to political hegemony: The conservative populism of George Wallace,” in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza (London: Verso, 2015), pp. 144–171.
 Yigal Schleifer, “The New Sultan of Turkey,” Pulitzer Center (3 April 2015).