“Gezi Park brought down the walls between the Kurds and nationalist Turks”
Övgü Pinar - 16/10/2013
The Gezi Park protests, started at the end of May against plans to build a shopping mall in a central green area, have been the largest social upheaval against the AK Party government which has been ruling Turkey for 11 years. Although the protests in their most active form lasted a few months, the “Gezi spirit” is still alive. It is still seen vividly in the social media, in cultural events and on the streets at any social controversy.
The Gezi protests were particular in bringing together different parts of the society together. Rightists and leftists, nationalist Turks and Kurds, religious and the non-believers were protesting side by side, hand in hand against the government’s domineering ways and police brutality. The protests, probably for the first time in the Turkish republic’s history brought people from all walks of life and the political spectrum together, and thus crushed the walls within the society.
We asked Kadri Gürsel, columnist for Turkish daily “Milliyet” and “Al Monitor” website, and the chairman of the Turkish National Committee of the International Press Institute, the causes and effects of the Gezi events:
What do you think were the main reasons that started the Gezi Park protests and made them grow in scope?
There is one utter reason to be mentioned above all others: It’s Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian governing style. Under this caption, I can count his unilateral way of doing things when it’s about deciding how Istanbul will look like in the future, his manners excluding all kind of negotiation with the city, local authorities, its people etc. The actual transformation that Taksim Square got underway has been his own personal decision. He didn’t follow an inclusive path to come to this. It’s pure hubris. And Taksim is the most important and central place in Turkey, people have right to voice their concerns about what is going on in their city. When they realized that the rulers are not listening to them and pursuing their unilateral agenda, they reacted. This is the first thing.
The second thing is the police brutality.
As Taksim area was practically closed by the police to any kind of protest and manifestation for almost a month before the Gezi uprising, the police reacted in a very brutal way on that day of 31st of May against a few hundreds activists that were protesting for a few days in tents to prevent the municipality to chop down the old tall trees as the first step to transform the central Gezi Park into a shopping mall.
That’s how the protest has grown and expanded to all over Turkey. 3,5 millions people took to the streets in 80 provinces according to police figures.
Nearly all kind of opposition movement existing in Turkey then joined the uprising: Socialists, Kemalists, gay&lesbians, anarchists, greens, Kurds, socialist Muslims etc.
The third factor is Erdoğan’s polarizing policies against secular fragments of the society. Just an example: He was mocking with people who drink alcoholic drinks as “drunkards” or “alcoholics” just a few days before the events. He once made a statement by saying, “Go and drink at home, not in public”. The day of the uprising in Taksim Square and side streets were littered with tens of thousands of empty beer cans and bottles as a sign of protest against Erdogan.
What are the characteristics of the Gezi protestors and their wishes?
Gezi is a social explosion. At the core of it there is the 90’s generation, or the “Generation Y” that took to the streets just to defend their individual liberties. The message they gave is clear: Erdoğan don’t preach and don’t tell me what to do and not to do! Don’t interfere with my life style. Get out of my way.
It’s the new middle class now seizing the moment to be the master of its destiny. They are mostly university students and young professionals who are innovative, highly talented and educated, mastering more than one foreign language, open to the world and selfish. The other elements like communists or Kemalists who joined the uprising a few days later are the classical types.
The protests brought together certain "groups" that were regarded as opposites before, like the "white Turks", Kurds, Alewites, Sunnis, non-believers, homosexuals, leftists, rightists etc. Would it be right to say that the Gezi protests brought down some of the walls within the Turkish society?
Absolutely. Especially when it comes to the wall in between Kurds and Kemalists. You must consider that Kemalists are staunch secular nationalists, hence hostile to Kurdish demands and aspirations. I personally witnessed every day how the two segments came into peaceful contact during the event. There was not one single hostility reported. Gezi protest is a very successful social and political experiment on the laboratory level.
AKP’s divide and rule policy
The prime minister Erdogan kept defining one part of the society involved in the protests as "them" and the others as "us". Do you think the approach and comments by the figures from the government were separatist? Did this attitude cause new walls to be built between different groups?
Polarization is a policy of choice of this government to consolidate its power. It’s a deliberately divisive political strategy. Sunni conservative segment constitutes the majority in the Turkish society. When the Islamist actor succeeds to divide the society between religious conservatives, seculars, between Sunnis, Alevis, between Islamists, secularist, AKP takes the bigger share as the Sunni conservatives identify themselves with AKP in line with its alienating political behaviorism and vote for AKP against the others. This is how AKP’s divide and rule policy has worked with zero cost so far. But this opportunist approach has been invalidated by Gezi protest and can only cause instability in its afterwards if Mr. Erdoğan insists to continue his way.
Gezi spirit is there to stay
Would you expect any concrete political results of the Gezi protests? Would the willingness to understand the "other" we saw at these events have any positive effects?
I don’t think that Gezi movement will end up in a political party. There are no indications in that way. But Gezi spirit is there to stay and is definitely influencing in a positive way the established politics. Hundreds of thousands of young people have been politicized in an unprecedented way and we have to wait and see its consequences in the mid-term.
By the way, Gezi has opened ways for alliances in social political behaviors. One may observe its fallouts in the upcoming local elections. Gezi also pushes Mr Erdoğan to make charm offensives to rehabilitate his shattered image and his crumbled moral authority. AKP paradigms are the first victims of Gezi. So called “democratization package” is the result of a search for repair.
What do you think of the current situation? Do you think the momentum started by the Gezi protests has vanished totally or can we see some repercussions in the future?
The social and political energy irrupted in Gezi would lose its momentum in its dialectical transformation. It transforms in to other forms but won’t disappear. It’s a generational upheaval. It’s there to stay and cause tremendous change.