Turkey protests: Is the 'Turkish Spring' beginning?

The ongoing protests in Turkey are in response to some very real grievances felt by the Turkish population

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Protests in Turkey have flared in recent days
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Dr. Hasan Turunc
On 3 June 2013 15:41

On-going protests in Turkey represent a popular outburst against the gradual encroachment of civil liberties and suppression of dissenting views by the Islamist- rooted government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The culmination of the following issues have created discontent among sizeable portions of society and led to spontaneous uprisings, comprising people from every walk of life and a wide range of political affiliation.

The number of jailed journalists in Turkey tops China and Iran. Moreover, a growing culture of self-censorship in the mainstream media, resulting from sustained government pressure and a prioritisation of corporate interests over those of the public, has meant that mainstream media outlets have lost their independence and credibility. At the height of the events, Turkish TV channels were running their regular broadcasting.

Moreover, there has been a monopolisation of power to the point where there are growing concerns over the independence of the judiciary. These concerns heightened following what appears to be politically-motivated appointments to key judicial positions by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as an expressed desire by Prime Minister Erdogan to create a ‘super presidency’ that undermines the democratic separation of powers for the sake of political efficacy. Utilising its numerical majority in the parliament, the AKP passes laws without recourse to public debate or engaging in meaningful dialogue with other political parties. Democracy has been reduced to elections.

Equally of concern has been the imposition of a conservative morality: An openly articulated mission to mould society in the party’s own vision of a conservative Sunni outlook which threatens civil liberties, pluralism and the accommodation of different lifestyles. Recent cases in point are the controversial education reforms that emphasise religious instruction, growing curbs on the sale and use of alcohol, suggested limitations on abortion, and public announcements in subway stations to ‘obey the rules of morality’.

Tying these negative developments together has been an unrestrained development drive. Signs of a slowdown in GDP growth have led the AKP government to rely heavily on mega-infrastructure and construction projects to sustain growth rates. These include the construction of an artificial canal next to the Bosphorus Strait, the world’s largest mosque on Istanbul’s highest hilltop, a controversial new bridge over the historic Golden Horn that has drawn criticism from UNESCO, hydroelectric dams that threaten to destroy sensitive ecosystems and submerge hundreds of villages and cultural heritage sites, as well as countless urban regeneration projects that destroy historical neighbourhoods, and cause mass displacement and environmental degradation.

On May 29th, Prime Minister Erdogan’s announcement that plans to raze Gezi Park, one of the last public green spaces in Istanbul, to make way for a shopping mall would go on unabated despite sustained opposition proved to be the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.

At dawn on May 31st, as a peaceful sit-in entered its third day in Gezi Park, police raided the grounds with excessive force using tear gas and pressurised water to disperse the sleeping crowd. Coming on the back of a long series of incidents involving police brutality against unarmed citizens, the raid has triggered a public outrage that has quickly turned into one of the most dramatic upheavals in modern Turkish history.

Social media penetration in Turkey – among the highest in the world – allowed the protesters to mobilise at a dizzying pace. In a matter of hours, protests spread to more than 30 cities across Turkey. Hence, in an interview on Sunday, Prime Minister Erdogan said, “There is now a menace which is called Twitter, the best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society”.

The prime minister was quick to label the protestors as marginal groups and radicals. On the contrary, the protests have brought together an exceptional mix of people from diverse political backgrounds, including liberals and socialists, environmentalists and LGBT activists, secularist Kemalists, Turkish nationalists, and Kurdish activists, not to mention the large number of previously apolitical citizens enraged by the physical and political suppression of legitimate demands.

Solidarity between the demonstrators and the general public has been impressive with stories of public bus and garbage truck drivers blocking roads to prevent a police assault on demonstrators, pharmacies handing out liquid solution against tear gas, volunteer medics attending to injuries, and luxury hotels, humble cafes, and ordinary people offering safe haven to protestors fleeing from police violence.

Worryingly, Prime Minister Erdogan’s uncompromising and defiant response to the demonstrations so far has encouraged further use of excessive force by the police whilst fuelling the protestors’ anger.

In summary, increasing monopolisation of power, patriarchal approach to government and a feeling of disenfranchisement experienced by a significant portion of society in the absence of proper public deliberation and dialogue have caused massive public outrage.

Hasan Turunc is London-based researcher. He completed his PhD in politics and international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London

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