Taksim in-between spontaneity and conspiracy

Ufuk Ulutaş
Ufuk Ulutaş
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Taksim, an otherwise major attraction point for many foreign visitors, has been hit with protests for the last couple of weeks. A tiny sit-in in a tiny park at the heart of Istanbul morphed into a sizeable but amorphous protest movement against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its leader PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Since then, the protest movement has attracted big, and in some cases disproportional, attention from many at home and abroad.

On the one hand, the amorphous style of the protest and the evolution it went through since its inception on late May until the third week of June, when it began to deflate, made understanding the roots of it rather difficult. On the other hand, its evolution from a local incident into international breaking news and the way the Western media portrayed it in comparison with the Arab uprisings made many to question the agenda of outside actors.

For those who tend to see the world black and white both at home and abroad, what happened in Taksim must be something between authoritarianism and democracy. In this line of thinking, the context is more than often sacrificed for political positions. That is to say, the way one adopts politics becomes the sole method of interpreting every single incident, without having the need to set its background and establish its context.

To begin with, the AK Party government was elected for its 3rd term through internationally recognized free elections; and fairly speaking, it has proved to be the strongest democratizing force in the history of the Republic of Turkey. The Turkish democracy, which is still a work in progress, has been consolidated through several reforms implemented and steps taken by the AK Party. This is “History of Turkish Political Development 101”.

One should analyze the Taksim incident against this background. Incidentally, when one says Taksim, he/she is not speaking of a single phased incident. In the first phase, from the beginning of the sit-in in the Gezi Park to the first intervention of the police to the protesters, the movement was tiny and had a clear, and from an environmentalist perspective, understandable demand, which is the cancellation of the Gezi Park project. It has become clear that there was a huge gap between what the protesters thought the Gezi Park project would bring and what the project was actually proposing. Branding this as a miscommunication or lack of transparency at this point does not mean a lot. Regardless of this gap, having to do crisis management instead of managing the sit-in is a failure on the official side. In this sense, officials unwittingly helped transformation of the protests into the phase 2.

The main body of the protests were hijacked by previously dormant undemocratic groups and turned into a revenge fight against the government. Rejectionism and vandalism followed suit.

Ufuk Ulutaş

Phase 2 is characterized by culmination of anti-government sentiments run by various motivations. From this moment on, while the protest movement began to diverge politically and socially, it also became vulnerable to political manipulation and outside interference. A tiny group of environmentalists were joined by groups with differing agendas: those who are angry at the first intervention of the police; the social base of the main opposition party CHP seeing this as an opportunity for shaking the AK Party rule, those without a strong party affiliation and some business conglomerates who wanted to settle personal or group accounts with a decade long AK Party rule, as well as marginal and predominantly radical leftist groups and terrorist organizations.

Apparently, a decade long AK Party rule, which symbolizes- to use a popular term- the “Turkish Spring”, worked in two ways. It consolidated AK Party’s political and social base, and made it a “dominant party” with no prospects through democratıc means of losing power in the short term. Meanwhile, it created a relatively minor but outspoken and ideologically ossified opposition of different kind. Probably, the common point between them is their reading of the AK Party through ideological lenses, toned with “identity politics”. The socıal base of the AK Party symbolizes the essential “other”. Therefore, regardless of their actual targets, many policies introduced by the government have been perceived as interference in the lifestyle of anti-AK Party social base. Another common point is their eventual understanding of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of winning an election against the AK Party in the short term. This absence of a democratic alternative to the AK Party in the ballot box also worked to direct opposition’s anger towards the streets.

The push to protest

Here one should draw a clear line between the initial motivation of the protests and the eventual point it evolved into. This is something that has been missing in many of the analyses written and said about Turkey. At this moment, only few discuss the initial handling of the protests by the security apparatus. But this is no reason for ignoring the bigger picture. The main body of the protests were hijacked by previously dormant undemocratic groups and turned into a revenge fight against the government. Rejectionism and vandalism followed suit, which consequently created a vicious circle of clashes between the police and violent protestors, which is not unprecedented in the recent history of the democratic world. Not an excuse, but mass arrests, use of pepper gas and water cannons, and abusive police force are also prevalent in Western democracies; Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, mass rallies in Spain in 2012, and most recently G-8 protests in London are but few examples of it.

To call a spade a spade, Erdoğan is not very popular in some parts of the world. He has been an outspoken critic of the status quo; and the ascendance of Islamist politics in the Middle East and his success as a leader of an Islamist-rooted party has been alarming for secularist and status-quoist segments in the region and the world. Turkey’s increasing involvement in regional and global affairs and self-confidence is nerve-racking to some. During the Syria crisis, for instance, this alarmism and reservation for Turkey has put into play not only by pro-Assad folks but also some “pro-opposition” countries and actors.

The Syria crisis, among else, became a mechanism to tame Turkey’s self-confidence in the region. Similarly, the riots in Taksim and elsewhere in the 2nd phase were used by some regional and global actors to give a clear warning to Turkey.

This is not necessarily to say that the crisis was created by outside actors. However, the crisis was seen as an opportunity to gain rhetorical superiority and moral high ground against an ascendant Turkey, which has been propagating an ethical standpoint to regional and global affairs, by several regional and global actors. The riots deserved foreign media coverage, but an unprecedented coverage of the not unprecedented events with one-sided analysis, including a seven hour live coverage by CNN International, definitely deserves questioning the rationale behind this unusual interest in Turkey. This becomes even more questionable when one considers the fact that the Western media reserved minimal space to the recent Reyhanli bombing of May 2013, worst terror attack Turkey has witnessed.

Like elsewhere, nothing is black and white Turkey. The political and sociological background of the riots is there to analyze. But, the picture is not complete when the regional and global contexts are left out.

Ufuk Ulutaş is a foreign policy fellow at the SETA Foundation for Political, Social and Economic Research in Ankara, Turkey. He previously worked at SETA Washington DC as the Middle East Program coordinator and taught classes at the Ohio State University. He is on the board of Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Somali-based think-tank. He is the host of “Küresel Siyaset”, a foreign policy centered program broadcast by Turkish TV station, TRT Türk. Ulutaş is a frequent commentator on Middle East politics and Turkish foreign policy on Turkish and international televisions including BBC, Al-Jazeera, CCTV, Russia Today, CNN, and his op-eds and comments appear regularly on both Turkish and international news outlets. He can be found on Twitter @ufukulutas

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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