No clear leadership

Turkey: In revolt against AKP dictat

Esen Uslu reports from Istanbul

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an embarked on its attempt to resolve the Kurdish insurgency through a negotiated settlement, it has been screwing down the lid on the ‘democracy package’ it introduced in the first years of its decade-long reign. In this way the AKP has tried to balance its loss of face over Kurdistan by imposing tighter control over the opposition in the western, or ‘Turkish’, part of Turkey.

When the government decided on its turnabout in the longstanding policy of doggedly pursuing the dirty war against the Kurdish freedom movement, and instead tried to engage in meaningful negotiations with Kurdish leaders, it faced two adverse political consequences: losing the support it enjoyed within its Islamist power base, which it had previously assumed was safe; and causing the sudden loss of much of the tacit approval it had won among its still powerful opponents in the civilian and military bureaucracy.

With elections looming next year, the loss of support of the forces it thought were either secure or neutralised for the last decade became a serious threat to the viability of the government. In response it tried to win them back by reining in democracy and starting to play on the traditional items of contention between secularists and Islamists.

All this was bound to create huge tensions; however, nobody, including the most seasoned observers, expected the spark for the revolt we have seen to be the unlikely issue of the environment. So what is the background?

Liberalising and deregulation

There is a long list of the central government’s abuses of authority, but these have not been met by widespread and sustained opposition. Included on that list were moves towards dam and hydroelectricity generating schemes, destroying the ecosystem of streams and rivers, and the issuing of mining and quarrying permits within forests. These provoked vocal opposition from local groups.

The long contested issue of granting building permits for land where forests had been destroyed instead of agreeing to reforestation was brought to a head by legislation introduced to the dismay of environmentally aware people. But the legislation was welcomed by local landowners and developers, especially on the south coast, where building land is at a premium due to the expansion of the tourism industry.

But the abuse of urban planning and environmental powers did not create widespread resistance. The government removed many restrictions on property-developers as well as the legal protection enjoyed by historical monuments and environmental features. Admittedly those rules and regulations were practically toothless, but they were ‘liberalised’ even further in order to open the way for the construction of new gated communities and shopping centres in the green belt around Istanbul.

The same process, bereft of any democratic consultation, applied to ‘urban renewal’ schemes in traditional city centres. In some places it simply meant slum clearance. One such targets was the Roma district of Istanbul within the Byzantine city walls. It achieved its twin aims: gentrifying the inner-city area and expelling the Roma to a far-flung corner of the city.

Another ongoing urban renewal project in Tarlaba??, part of the Beyo?lu district near Taksim Square, saw the demolition of a large part of the old settlement occupied by Christian minorities. The historic avenue, ?stiklal Caddesi, has also been the target of ‘transformation’. Several old art nouveau buildings were converted into shopping centres, and one of the earliest and much loved cinemas was demolished - a ‘replica’ was built on the fourth floor of the new building!

In all these schemes, developers were aided by freely allocated licences kindly provided by local authorities and central government. They were met with very vocal opposition, but this was easily swept away through the liberal application of baton charges, teargas volleys and water cannons on the part of the police.

Encouraged by all this, and still feeling cornered thanks to the situation in Kurdistan, the government suddenly embarked on several grandiose building schemes that have religious as well as nationalist-cum-expansionist undertones. A new bridge over the Bosporus for a new motorway passing through the green belt north of Istanbul; a monumental replica of a Sultan’s mosque on top of the Çaml?ca vantage-point overlooking the old city - one of the last recreation areas open to people from the outlying working class areas; a ship canal running parallel to the Bosporus and gobbling up the last area of forest north-west of the city, posing a threat to the entire Black Sea ecosystem; a gargantuan new airport next to a lagoon near the Black Sea coast north of Istanbul, which would destroy the fresh-water catchment area and water courses; a new quay for cruise ships instead of the old quay along the Bosporus; and two massive land-reclamation projects for the construction of ‘demonstration spaces’ off the Marmara Sea - all were introduced with great fanfare.

There were neither environmental studies on these projected developments nor any public consultation. And the cherry on the cake was the naming of the new Bosporus bridge after Sultan Selim (nicknamed ‘the Grim’), to the chagrin of the Alevis, for whom Sultan Selim was responsible for the massacre of more than 40,000 in the 16th century. However, nobody expected more than the inconsequential marches and demonstrations that took place.

May Day tradition

The government decided to push its luck further: having succeeded in carrying out several of its controversial objectives, the time was right to fulfil the long-standing project of denying Taksim Square to the working class for the purpose of demonstrations, especially on May Day.

After many years of taking a seemingly liberal position on this question, the government changed its tune in 2013. Previously, to the surprise of many, when it needed the tacit support of working people to push back the interference and threats from the military top brass, it opened up Taksim Square for May Day rallies and even declared May Day a public holiday.

However, last year a pedestrianisation scheme was undertaken and a large part of the square was transformed into a construction site, riddled with pits and makeshift walkways. And this year, using the allegedly dangerous nature of the site as a pretext, the authorities denied the use of the square for May Day. When workers’ organisations refused to toe the line, a massive police operation shut down the area on May 1 in order to prevent people gaining access. All day long, demonstrators clashed with the police.

Several proposals for permanently removing Taksim Square as a working class venue have been floated. For a while there were plans to build a grand mosque. There was talk of tearing down the Atatürk Cultural Centre on the eastern edge of the square and redeveloping the site as a convention centre. Then there was the idea of rebuilding the old artillery barracks demolished in the 1940s to make space for a park on the north side of the square. None of these proposals were firm - it was clear that they were being floated to test the waters, for the opposition was fierce.

Suddenly the central government announced its decision to redevelop the park by rebuilding the artillery barracks as a shopping centre. Not only did it brush aside the legal challenges mounted by the opposition: the government also declared that no other inner-city public space would be available for marches and demonstrations.

And at the end of May, without any notice, the cutting down of trees along the north edge of the square was begun. Environmentalists gathered to protest and S?rr? Süreyya Önder, an MP from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), intervened by physically jumping in front of the construction machinery.

Hearing of these developments, the traditional forces of resistance in the Taksim area rushed to the park. They set up a camp, and early next morning the brutal police attack came. This, together with the intransigent proclamations of the government, set in motion the revolt. Despite the massive police operation, thousands and thousands of people came to the square and there were running battles with the police.

The ferocity of the police attacks was met with the erection of makeshift barricades and increasing mass action. In other cities, massive rallies in support of the Taksim resistance were staged, and in many working class districts of Istanbul well-established leftwing activity centres went into action. Even opposition groups, such as anti-capitalist Muslims, were drawn in. During the crackdown, a top-class hotel opened its lobby to wounded demonstrators. Fleeing protestors also found refuge in the mosque attached to the Dolmabahçe Palace, where the prime minister’s office is situated.

Suddenly a new generation of youth and students moved beyond the wall of fear, standing firm against police brutality and state authoritarianism. Even supporters of Istanbul’s three principal football clubs, who have never before been involved in politics, joined the demonstrations in force. Students with IT skills arranged for streamed TV broadcasts, as well as the usual Twitter and social media channels, to expose the police brutality and rally support in the face of a media black-out. The government instructed the public broadcasting service not to publicise the demonstrations and threatened private media with loss of advertising revenue.

The liberating effects of mass action became apparent by the creativity and humour arising from among the ranks of the resistance. They have adopted the proud name, chapulcu (looter), following Erdo?an’s attempt at denigration when he referred to the problems all being caused by “a few looters”.

For a couple of days the police were withdrawn and during that short time the square enjoyed the ‘direct democracy’ of the occupiers. Last weekend two massive demonstrations were held and the challenge to the AKP government was obvious: the prevailing chant was that Erdo?an should resign.

Chinks in the armour

The construction work stopped, the demonstrators had not gone away and the AKP seemed to have lost its bearings. It had resorted to its well-known practice of attempting to defeat the opposition through a combination of lies and police violence, but the cracks were most definitely beginning to show.

While a local government spokesman apologetically claimed that the proposed development was not related to the artillery barracks project, but was merely a road-widening scheme, a government statement insisted on precisely the opposite. Then the local authority was subsequently ‘disappeared’ from TV screens.

In the absence of the prime minister, who despite the crisis continued with his official visit to north African countries, the president and deputy prime minister attempted to cool the situation through adopting a conciliatory stance. They declared that the police action had been wrong, that individual officers had gone beyond the call of duty, and that all abuses were to be investigated. One of the most powerful Islamist leaders, who resides in the USA, came out openly against the previous hard line, citing Koranic verses to warn against tyranny and arrogance. This line was repeated in comments critical of government policy made by AKP MPs, which was a first.

However, on his return, Erdo?an rallied his forces around the original hard line. The central apparatus now adopted cold war-type rhetoric blaming marginal leftwing extremists who wanted to hold back progress. The government also played the xenophobic Islamist-nationalist card by blaming the financiers and accusing them of manipulating the stock exchange and currency rates for profit. Erdo?an targeted those sections of finance capital with strong international links. Following his lead, state economic enterprises and public bodies started to withdraw funds from the banks of those groups. This created massive financial instability, and the state bank was told to sell its US dollar reserves to stop the downward spiral.

While Erdo?an agreed to talk to selected members of the Taksim Platform set up by the occupiers, he also initiated the brutal clearance of the square on the evening of Tuesday June 11. Once more this was met with determined resistance, which was only ended by a massive police assault. Simultaneously, resistance camps in Ankara and in the parks of many other cities were destroyed by similar police actions.

Learn the lessons

The initial 48 hours of the revolt focused on opposition to the authoritarianism of the government, but then it started to take up the broader demand for democracy. However, the left organisations failed to put forward a programme based on such democratic demands and, despite their heroism on the barricades, they failed to imbue the message of democracy amongst the ranks of the protestors.

The forces of resistance were incapable of electing a representative body to promote their joint aims. A disdain for democratic organisation, the trademark of petty bourgeois anarchism, is apparent, and the left is unable to take the lead.

Among the opposition there are fault lines over both the national question and religious sectarianism. As for the Kurdish freedom movement, it failed to act in a timely manner in support of the demonstration until its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, intervened. Its hesitation may be understandable in the face of the tentative peace process and nationalist attempts to undermine it. However, eventually the realisation dawned that the call for democracy raised by the revolt is actually one that favours Kurdistan.

In the southern provinces, the government attempted to provoke divisions between Alevi and Sunni demonstrators, and clashes were only prevented thanks to massive efforts on the part of other forces among the demonstrators.