Selin NasiTwo years later, Gezi protests continue to shape Turkish politics. Not unlike other political movements, the Gezi protests created competing narratives in an effort to give a meaning to what happened that fateful May.
For some, the protests signified a civil resistance against state oppression, while, for others, it was an international plot with local collaborators, a failed attempt to topple the government. In retrospect, the socio-political foundations of the project of “New Turkey” were laid during the Gezi movement as the then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put forward his ideal of building a conservative society, which would stand on the shoulders of “pious youth.” Gezi, in this respect, signifies a point of divergence between alternative visions for the future of Turkey.
Following the protests, the government responded with a series of policies to consolidate its power, regardless of criticisms against an increasingly authoritarian rule. Various measures were taken in order to prevent the outbreak of similar demonstrations in the future such as upgrading the police force and the passing of security laws, which nearly abolished the right to demonstrate. Besides, mounting pressure on the media served to create loyalty by tightening the government’s grip over civil society.
Considering vivid memories of military interventions, e-coups, and party banning cases of the past, the spectacle of the protests caused the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to relieve its past traumas. The government saw the movement as a threat right from the start and therefore, acted upon statist impulses and tried to crush it without questioning its underlying causes. Looking back in time, had the AKP government taken environmental demands seriously and held out an olive branch to protestors, we wouldn’t have had young people killed or wounded; instead, we could have had a democracy park in Taksim today. Gezi was, in a way, a missed opportunity to embrace differences and thereby strengthen the basis of democratic rule.
Yet, compromise was mistaken for weakness and power was equated with force. The more the government held onto a divisive rhetoric in the form of us (loyalists) vs. them (traitors), the more political tensions escalated, which was clear evidence that the diagnosis was wrong, as was the cure.
The movement started as an environmental protest and turned into a revolt against the authoritarian leadership, particularly against the state’s meddling with private affairs of individuals. Gezi manifested in many ways that the tools of conventional governance were inadequate in terms of meeting liberal democratic demands of the society. The opposition, which the government defied as “marginal,” was new in the sense that it rejected tutelage originating from any political party. Mocking the hypocrisy of politics itself, this new opposition derived its power from humor instead. Interestingly enough, about 60 percent of the protestors were between the ages of 20 and 30, representing the so-called de-politicized generation, who were born after the 1980 coup and brought up in an environment where political activism was severely discouraged. However, the disproportionate use of force against the unarmed protestors led people to overcome fear and take to the streets. Defending the park constituted a common cause and therefore, established solidarity among people holding different political views.
The Gezi protests, which spread all across Turkey, were above all, a manifestation of public demands for a pluralist and inclusive democratic system. There was obviously a need for a new social contract. However, the government’s idea of “new” was far from compatible with what the supporters of Gezi promoted. As publicized towards the presidential elections of 2014, the project of “New Turkey” offered to bridge the gap between the state and the society, making up for 200 years of the cultural alienation of the pious masses. Yet, the definition of society did not include the opposition that had emerged with Gezi. The project of New Turkey seemed more of a design to transform non-conformers in the society to fit in the images of that ideal citizen.
As the elections near, Turkey is coming to a crossroads. The outcome of the elections is likely to determine which of the alternative versions of the New Turkey will win. The critics, who often argue that Gezi led to a dead end, fail to see the sea change in society, reflected onto the messages delivered by the opposition. Perhaps the key to emancipation is hidden in old graffiti written on the walls of the Gezi Park, which said: “Neither revolution, nor the rule of Sharia, but only respect.”