Populism is a necessity. Chantal Mouffe

Petri Dishes

Taksim Square has emerged as a diverse and tolerant microcosm of Turkish society: People from all walks of life are envisioning the future of their country’s democracy.

As the protests in Turkey continue many observers ask the same question: “who are the protestors and what do they want?”. There is no simple answer to this question, as this is not an organized civil protest movement. It is rather an accidental coalition of ordinary citizens from different opposition groups: secular nationalists, leftists, some ultra-nationalists, some Kurds, some Islamists, LGBTs, environmental activists, and some formerly apolitical citizens, who, in one way or another, feel angered and excluded by prime minister Erdogan’s increasingly dismissive and condescending discourse, reminiscent of an ‘angry father’ trying to align his children.

A visit to Taksim’s Gezi Parki – where tents have been set up and a festive atmosphere has reigned since the reclamation of the park by the public – suffices to display the various colors of this unlikely coalition. A stroll through Taksim Square, full of flags representing various political groups and people from different worldviews, makes clear that this is not a fight between the Islamists and the secularists, as some observers try to suggest. It is not a fight between the 50 percent who voted for the AKP in the last national elections and the remaining 50 percent who didn’t, as Erdogan has claimed. Rather, it is a fight between those who interpret democracy as the tyranny of majority and those who demand a more pluralistic democracy and equal respect for minority groups. It is a fight against social engineering of any kind, be it secular-nationalist or religious-nationalist. It is a fight against the gentrification of public spaces and the destruction of the environment as a result of the aggressive neoliberal policies pursued in Turkey in the last decade.

Turkish nationalism remains strong

That said, it would be wrong to claim that demonstrators all over Turkey are as diverse as those in Gezi Parki. In most Anatolian cities and some Istanbul neighborhoods one can easily observe the dominance of secular-nationalists among the protestors. “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” and “Resign Tayyip” are the most popular slogans chanted by this group. They are disturbed by both the peace talks with the Kurdish movement and the recent restrictions on the sales of alcohol, among many other things. They accuse the AKP government, and specifically Erdogan, of ‘dividing and selling the country’ and ‘conservatizing the Turkish society’. Wrapping their bodies in Turkish flags and carrying flags with Ataturk pictures they chant nationalist marches and vow to guard ‘Ataturk’s secular legacy’.

Even though this nationalist discourse has kept the Kurdish movement at bay and prevented them from participating in the demonstrations at full strength, many people are also aware that secular-nationalists are not the ones who started this struggle. Powerful as their participation in these protests may be, they have even been accused of ‘hijacking the uprising’ by the diverse group of protestors at Gezi Parki. On one occasion, in response to the slogan “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal”, the LGBT bloc and the leftists at Gezi Parki chanted: “We won’t die, we won’t kill, we will not be anyone’s soldier”. On another occasion, in response to the reports that women wearing headscarves have been assaulted at Taksim Square, women in Gezi showed solidarity and stood up for the rights of these headscarfed women.

There has also been an important improvement on the Kurdish front on June 7: Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party), in a meeting he held with two BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) parliamentarians, showed his sympathy for the Gezi struggle, with a reservation on ultra-nationalists. Although this message has yet to be reflected on the ground, one might expect more Kurdish participation in Gezi in the days to come.

Erdogan has ignored the message from the streets

It could be said that Gezi Parki is now a microcosm of Turkish society; a microcosm that is much more tolerant of diversity and much more peaceful than its bigger version. A dream world where different opposition groups sleep in tents adjacent to each other without fighting each other; a dream world where slogans of oppositional nature are chanted. The message these protestors are trying to give to the government is: “Do not intervene in anyone’s life style, do not impose on us your worldview, do not try to sterilize our public spaces, just let us be”.

So far, Erdogan has insisted on ignoring this message. To the contrary, he chose to make statements that will further polarize the society. If Erdogan insists on closing his eyes to public demands and continues to exercise police brutality on demonstrators even more people might flood to the streets.

It is too early to claim that these protests will turn into a durable opposition that will topple the AKP government or force them change their way of ruling. While it is true that the struggle for Gezi Parki has ignited the biggest civil protest movement Turkey has seen in the last three decades, it is also very likely that this opposition will be ephemeral due to inherent differences between groups supporting the movement. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Turkish democracy now looks much stronger than it did ten days ago and Turkish people are more hopeful about the future of their country.

Read more in this debate: David Janssen, Ahmet Suerdem, Buket Bora.

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