The Gezi protests: A historic struggle for democracy

The Gezi protests: A historic struggle for democracy

Last year, on this very day, hundreds of thousands of Turkish people hit the streets to protest the security forces’ brutal crackdown on environmentalist activists’ peaceful protest against the government’s plans to demolish a symbolic park, Gezi Park, at Istanbul’s historically important Taksim Square. Since then, a number of books, academic studies and documentaries have tried to provide an in-depth analysis of the motivations behind the massive Gezi Park protests and of their political and social consequences.

Turkey’s social democratic opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), also studied the Gezi protests in a report titled “The Gezi Movement,” prepared by its Research and Policy Development Department. The 76-page report was written by a team under the leadership of CHP Deputy Head Sencer Ayata, Turkey’s renowned sociology professor.  

“Sadly, I have to acknowledge that the citizens’ basic rights in our country are being limited by a political regime whose authoritarian tendencies have become increasingly evident. This oppressive regime is not content with limiting political liberties; it interferes with individuals’ private lives, and restricts their freedom of personal choice,” wrote CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in his introduction to the report. For him, the Gezi Movement was a reflection of the people’s demands for freedom and democracy, which is why “Millions of citizens, of all ages and from all sections of society, who adamantly defended their right to the city, participated.”

Here are some exerpts from the report, which describes the Gezi movement as a “historic struggle for democracy”:

Who participated: With its different components and different types of protests, the Gezi Movement was a big, multi-layered urban protest movement that took place across several locations. Students, white-collar employees, Alevis, workers, women, shopkeepers, Kurds, the LGBT community, housewives supported the protests, even if they were not directly involved.

Women’s role: During the Gezi Movement, women became the leading political actor in Turkey. In particular, the strong participation of young women led to the Gezi Movement being perceived across the world as a modern political movement, therefore garnering a lot of sympathy.

The youth: Indeed, studies show that the average age of participants ranged between 20-30 years, with the highest level of participation coming from the 20-24 age group. That is why one can call the Gezi Movement primarily a youth movement. These young people put individualism first, do not like being bossed around, react against excess supervision, and immediately object to authoritarian tendencies. All these are a result of their families, peers and the media, primarily television.

The new middle-class: High educational levels combined with paid and salaried work reveal that the main body of activists consisted of well-educated white-collar professionals. The main group represented at Gezi Park consisted of white-collar employees, in other words, the “new middle class.” The new middle class here is a different concept that was coined while taking into account income levels, education and professions, in sociological terms. The new middle class includes individuals who work in paid or salaried jobs and have reached their current status by way of education and expert experience.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) reaction: Activists protested the AKP’s rule relentlessly and in different ways on the streets and squares. The Gezi Movement was and is a protest movement and a warning for democracy, advocating political and social freedoms against the government’s oppression in all domains. However, government officials tried to present this social protest movement as a guided attempt to overthrow the ruling party, without any concrete proof of this whatsoever. Instead of trying to understand the Gezi Movement and capitalize on its positive aspects or, at least, reduce tensions, the government preferred to accuse, smear and repress the activists. As all studies demonstrate, the AKP’s approach only led to increased reactions and tension.

Mass protests were triggered

The authoritarian regime: People who joined and supported the Gezi Movement brought the government’s cultural, economic and political oppression of citizens and social segments, primarily the restriction of individual freedoms, to the table and showed their reaction against the increasingly authoritarian regime. They said the government was not only limiting rights and freedoms but was also imposing a social order, lifestyle and cultural identity on society in line with its own values, using the power it derives from the state. The prime minister presents himself to the public as the person who knows best what is good for everyone and what people should or should not do. The AKP mentality decides on and wants to influence how people should dress, behave, eat, drink, think and do. Young people were polarized either as pious individuals or glue-sniffers, divided as either “Fatih’s descendants” or “the drunkard’s descendants.”

Erdoğan’s speeches: Studies clearly demonstrate an important fact. The movement started, grew and became popular mainly because of the reaction against the prime minister’s speech and behavior. That is why the Gezi Movement’s main criticism targeted the prime minister’s authoritarian style of administration and oppressive one-man government. Social segments, political groups and individuals of different views came together primarily to protest the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian regime. The prime minister’s desire to keep all parts of society under control, the way he speaks in a vindictive, hateful, disdainful and reprimanding manner towards some segments of society, and his “what I say goes” attitude were been found to be derogatory, particularly by the youth. Indeed, the prime minister and his statements became the subject matter of much of Gezi’s famous humor.

Polarization: In broader terms, the Gezi protests are, not surprisingly, a result of the political, cultural and social polarization evident in all aspects of Turkish life in recent years. Today, as the government tries to consolidate its electoral base, it dismisses everyone else as “others” and “enemies.” Indeed, during the Gezi resistance, Erdoğan maintained his policy of dividing society and addressed “his people” directly. Polarizing society has become the AKP’s main strategic tool. The prime minister is adding fuel to segregation in society, while trying to create an environment for further segregation and clashes. He is continually provoking one part of society against the other.

Gains from Gezi

Pluralistic values: The most highlighted aspect of the Gezi Movement was its pluralistic structure, bringing together individuals, groups, NGOs and political organizations with different identities, political opinions and lifestyles. Pluralistic values and behavioral patterns in line with these values, which were at the forefront of the movement, are cited among the most important experiences and gains of the movement. Not only those who personally joined the protests, but also people who watched the protests, were positively affected by the respect and tolerance to diversity during the movement and drew lessons from this.

Concerns about one-person rule: People have become concerned that power in Turkey is concentrated in one person’s hand and is used arbitrarily. Citizens are yearning for a state governed by the rule of law, where the limits of power are defined through rules, and where the fundamental freedoms of individuals are secure. The emphasis on an order drawn together by rules has been the most striking manifestation of this yearning.