The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan had taken a first tentative step towards rapprochement with the demonstrators who filled the streets across Turkey over the past two weeks by offering a referendum on whether to “save” Gezi Park (police evicted protesters from the park over the weekend). The announcement came about after a surprise meeting between a group of protest artists and some representatives of the Taksim solidarity platform. That was surely a step in the right direction, but it ignores the wider grievances now being voiced on the streets.
Protestors are upset about the heavy-handed police response to the ongoing demonstrations, the media censorship, and the forcing-through of large-scale building projects without prior public consultation. None of these issues are likely to be captured by the proposed referendum. The government announced that it will appeal a court decision against the construction of a shopping mall on the contentious Gezi Park site – a ruling that Erdogan has largely ignored so far.
Gezi Park is the tip of the iceberg
The talk of a referendum is another example of the narrow definition of democracy that the AKP has been expounding over the last week. It is a sign of a weak democracy, intended to sweep over two weeks of harsh police action and almost indiscriminate use of tear gas and, at times, brutal treatment of a largely passive crowd. Freedom of speech – a matter of serious concern in Turkey, where even mild dissent can lead to imprisonment – has also been forcefully put back on the agenda. Ignoring these issues will only weave them back into the general fabric of dissatisfaction, for them to linger and come to the fore at a later date.
A total of 81 cities across Turkey have seen protests, with only four cities showing no sign of dissent. Viewed through a national lens, Gezi Park is only the tip of the iceberg and a mere referendum on this matter will leave the public concern on more fundamental issues untouched. If the government goes ahead with the vote, they would very much fail to see the forest through the trees.
In meeting with a group of artists, academics and students to talk about demonstrator demands, the government hasn’t offered anything except a gesture. Social media was of course buzzing with mocking dissatisfaction over the meeting, especially after Erdogan met with the popular actress Hulya Avsar, who did not even visit any protest site during the past two weeks. Indeed, the meeting fuelled concerns that Erdogan is brushing off the protests by ridiculing them; having, of course, previously labelled protestors looters and terrorists.
As the discussion becomes dominated by the voices of the powerful, dissent is often pushed into cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook have become the main tools for any conversation outside of the official governmental parameters. The open and discursive space, which should be embodied in an open media, has moved to a new terrain out of necessity. It is evident that in Turkey, media is all too often a tool of the government rather than a medium of civil society.
There aren’t any tanks on the streets today – unlike during the days of Turkish military rule – but Erdogan’s open derision of the protesters has revealed that autocratic streaks of a governments that liked to veil itself in democratic discourses. Although they are slightly perplexed by Erdogan’s rhetoric, protestors are still ready to stand their ground. The government may do well to register the spontaneity and diversity of the movement as something novel in Turkey’s short history. The age-old simple social fault line between secularists and Islamists is no longer apparent. Demonstrators range from anti-capitalist Muslims to atheists, from ultranationalists to Kurdish activists.
Democracy is a civic attitude
The future direction of the protest movement is difficult to predict. Predictable is only the response of the government: Court cases are already being filed against Twitter users, lawyers, and artists who have stood arm in arm in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and elsewhere. Erdogan is likely to continue his assertions that the protestors are organized by some hidden power. In doing so, he plays on the very same top-down view of power that keeps Turkey’s culture of governance intact. It is a culture of governance that restricts the opportunity for practices pertaining to civil society and suffocates the moderates by depriving them of all conciliatory potential. Turkey has been here before: The same culture of governance that operated in the past and curtailed religious freedoms, such as the wearing of a headscarf in universities, is repeating itself all over again.
Erdogan will more than likely claim that the protestors are ideological in their aims and will continue to try and suppress the variety of feeling embodied in the movement. Moving on from Gezi Park, he will, with one eye on local elections, assert that the ballot box is the way to resolve potential issues without registering the concern of “othered’”minorities.
A true culture of democracy, as advocated by Turkey’s president Abdullah Gül, would widen the scope of participation and would recognize that democracy is not just about elections. Democracy is a civic attitude, a middle ground that provides a buffer against the use of extremist tactics. It is a political system that would protect and serve the minority as well as the majority and would improve the weak system of checks and balances on the political machine; and it would also quell the violent implications of Turkey’s current political situation.
This article was written in collaboration with Ramis Cizer.