Global Dialogues

Occupy Gezi: Reclaiming the Commons and the Collapse of Erdogan’s Domestic Policies

Since May 27th, the people of Turkey have staged one of the most diverse, inclusive and democratic protests that Turkey has ever seen. People from every political commitment came together and acted in solidarity against a gentrification project, which intended to transform a park into a shopping mall and hotel. More importantly, protests strongly underlined the fact that the multitudes are fed-up with the erosion of their civil liberties, lack of freedom of expression and increasing state intervention in everyday life. During the course of the protests, Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarian and irresponsible governmental style fueled more protests. Demonstrations spread all over the country like wild fire. Police brutality against the peaceful resistance resulted in hundreds of injuries and four deaths.

Since the neoliberal-Islamist Erdogan government came to power in 2002, there has been a wave of privatization and appropriation of public and of natural resources. Numerous large-scale gentrification projects were implemented despite public opposition with direct police violence. For instance, one of the most renowned resistances in Turkey was staged at the city of Bergama. After a long legal battle the Turkish government was allowed to operate a gold mine that utilizes a dangerous cyanide-leeching process. Villagers organized themselves against this illegal governmental intrusion. Over the years, with the help of activists and lawyers, the people of Bergama repeatedly won the legal battle against the gold mine—the Turkish constitution protects the livelihood of the people. However, the Erdogan government passed consecutive executive orders to essentially circumvent the juridical system. Ultimately, Koza-Ipek Holding, who had close ties to the conservative government, started to operate the mine in 2005.

In many respects, the Bergama gold mine was the one of the first major political defeats for the people who tried to defend their commons. At the time, many liberal intellectual figures (in the Turkish context these liberals are an offshoot of neo-conservatism) provided support to the government, despite the fact that there has been ongoing massive privatization. In part, some saw the Erdogan government’s struggle to grasp control of public institutions as a justified move against “the ancient regime,” which was represented by the secularist elite and Turkish republicanism known as Kemalists. At the time, the fight against the so-called “Deep State” characterized public agenda. The “Deep State” was initiated largely as a journalistic term, depicting a mafia-like organization within the state, which sought to overthrow the government. Considering the fact that Turkey has a long history of coup d’états, one, of course, can understand and support Erdogan’s move against the anti-democratic military as a legitimate act.

However, the Erdogan government’s crack down on military conspiracy transformed into a witch-hunt, and included many writers and academicians, and eventually largely lost its credibility. Most importantly, public discussions about the “Deep State” effectively neutralized fundamental questions about state power and its consequent paternalistic role in the Turkish society. In other words, the discourse about the “Deep State” was a strategic move promoting to the public the idea that there were two separate Turkish states, one being bad and represented by old regime, and the other being democratic, egalitarian and transparent, represented by Islamists.

The “Deep State” jargon played really well for Islamists as a quasi-theoretical journalistic framework, as they wanted to get rid of any opposition and access all tools and functions of violent state power. From the beginning, the democratization process was not conceived as a legitimate goal but only as an isolated stage where Erdogan government could take control of the state apparatus. The nature of state power did not change. It just changed hands. During this time, poverty and inequality widened. Human rights violations persisted. Freedom of expression suffered, and women’s participation in the public sphere dropped.

Today, thousands of intellectuals, students and activists are in prison, and the majority of them are Kurds, characterizing a poor human rights record. There is tight government control over the media, judicial system and all the other ostensibly independent government institutions. Moreover, as I mentioned in my previous post, over the years, as he increased his popular votes, Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian with low tolerance for his critics. In many instances, he gave orders to independent attorneys and judges, and called on media bosses to fire their columnists. He also blocked criminal investigations of state crimes. As a result, checks and balances do not exist.

During the last ten years, there has been a lack of a salient opposition, in part because of the old binary modes of thinking, but mostly because of Erdogan’s control over the Turkish media and their so-called liberal writers whose primary job has been to constantly attack the left. In this regard, one should understand the Occupy Gezi movement as the rejection of current politico-organizational models and parties, as none of them truly represent the vibrancy and diversity of the youth on the streets at the moment.

During the Occupy Gezi protests, independents commonly stand side-by-side with the nationalists, anticapitalist-Islamists, gays and lesbians, Kurds and people from across the political spectrum. Gezi Park was a site where the possibility of co-existence was proven as a viable model for Turkish society. The common demands for freedom of expression and civil liberties, as well as frustration with the Erdogan government’s authoritarianism, united the people of Turkey. Protesters raised their voices against neoliberal transformation, and reclaimed their commons.

One thing is clear now. Over the course of three weeks, Erdogan proved that he is far from acknowledging what is happening in Turkey, and what the demands are. He is, in fact, delusional and often ill informed about the Turkish society’s demands. Instead of an open dialogue, he chose to repress the revolt, polarize the country, relying on the old binary opposition game that he use to play with the republican secularists. This is perhaps his biggest mistake to date; he does not understand the diversity of protesters and their demands.

There have been clear messages from the streets. Protesters do not want aggressive politics based on nationalist identities, religion or gender. They are ready to form coalitions, talk to each other, and most importantly, they are ready to share their stage with other opposing views. Occupy Gezi was a festival, an inclusive democratic event where participation brought life to a new form of democracy. It was a truly an agonistic public sphere organized from the ground up. If we are smart enough, there were many valuable lessons for the progressive left and the social democrats. It is a hopeful moment. From Istanbul to New York, from Athens to Brazil, crowds are gathering for similar demands, to reclaim their commons, for freedom and for democracy. No matter what the immediate outcome is, a new form of solidarity has been born.