In many countries, May Day is a day of national celebration. In Turkey, however, May 1 has always had contradictory meanings. Compared to our past experiences on Labor Day as Turkish citizens, some differences in this year’s celebrations were remarkable.
For many years, May Day was perceived as a day celebrated only by the trade unions and also as a day marked by street violence. We also have to note that during these years there was propaganda labeling the trade unions as “leftist,” thus close to communist Russia, and they were accused of having relations with many illegal organizations, even with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, trade unions in Turkey are quite different to their counterparts in developed countries; the leaders of some of them are very wealthy people, for example. Besides, the majority of the working class has never given the impression that they were interested in staging a revolution.
In addition, the May Day demonstrations were fertile ground for diverse provocations. The one in 1977 was a turning point for Turkey, as many people lost their lives, and May 1 became a day of great sorrow. Only years later have we learned that this massacre was one of the steps paving the way for the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup and that it was mainly organized by the “deep state.” That’s why May Day is not only an opportunity for workers to express their grievances, but also an opportunity to face the country’s past.
Security forces were a common scene at past May Days. We were used to seeing as many policemen as demonstrators and the country’s big cities looking as if they were under occupation or preparing for an imminent foreign invasion. The high numbers and the overall attitude of the police terrorized everyone, and sometimes the police used violence just to show the people the strength of the state.
We’ve witnessed tanks and automatic weapons being used against the population in the past, not just tear gas or water cannons as nowadays. Some of the marchers were killed, injured or arrested. Their only “crime” was to participate in a political demonstration, because May Day was a “forbidden holiday” for decades.
Finally, May 1 was officially declared to be a public holiday, and the tension suddenly dropped. People joined the demonstrations with more confidence, knowing that this was no longer an illegal act. This confidence didn’t just benefit the trade unions and demonstrators, but the security forces are also more serene now. The number of uniformed policemen we see on the streets on May Day has considerably decreased. Individual acts of vandalism of course remain, but now local people and shopkeepers rather than policemen oppose the troublemakers.
Turkey is learning that it is possible to do politics without fighting in the streets or setting buildings on fire. The majority of the population is fed up with violence and skirmishes.
However, the rhetoric used by some politicians is far from pacifying. They continue to employ an aggressive tone towards each other, blaming their rivals for everything. Nevertheless, society is no longer interested in these sterile struggles because they don’t cast their votes for the one who shouts louder, but in favor of those who propose real and concrete remedies for their real and concrete problems. People care more about who is willing to change the constitution, who is more democratic and who is more capable of protecting the economy from the global crisis.
May Day was the symbol of “fear politics” in Turkey. It seems that society is no longer afraid of May Day. It would be useless from now on to build a political rhetoric based on fear.