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June 02, 2013, Sunday

Demonstrations and development in Turkey

Since the beginning of last week there have been demonstrations in Turkey. They started at Taksim Square in order to convince the government, in fact to convince Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to protect Gezi Park, which the government is planning to redevelop, the last green piece of land in the Taksim area. To remind, the prime minister is determined to reconstruct a historic building -- used for military purposes for almost three centuries and destroyed during the single-party oppressions in the early 1940s -- where the park now stands.

However, the prime minister has announced that this building may be sold to be turned into a shopping mall or a luxury hotel. This means that even if the green area were protected, it would lose its public characteristics and would be transferred to private use.

There has been significant support for the rearrangement of the entire square to isolate traffic in order to open it to pedestrians. However, those who are not satisfied with this idea have been arguing that the final stage of this rearrangement will end with the “privatization” of the entire square -- a fear that has come to be true at the end of the day.

I have been reminding the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government not to create such radical, pro-capitalist policies that would lead people to feel deprived, exhausted and alienated. For this reason, in one of my latest pieces for Zaman, I underlined that “Yes, it is true that the International Monetary Fund [IMF0 has gone, but its model and spirit are with us!'

In this respect, it could be argued that the massive protests are the first uprising against capitalism in Turkey. It seem that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the US has recently become a model for the protestors in Turkey. In fact, in the beginning, the protesters were a small group of people with a pure, peace-oriented motive. The symbol of the protest has been a tree that was cut down by the municipality. Some young ladies brought small, young trees to replant the park. With the use of brute police force and violence, any control on the protesting groups was lost and, finally, widespread demonstrations erupted across the entire country. Despite this, in his last speech before the protests got out of hand, the prime minister continued giving false messages. It was expected that the protests would calm down because the court had stopped the bulldozing process. However, after the prime minister's speech, which was one day after the court decision, the protest grew worse. The prime minister not only criticized the court for giving its decision, he also repeated that the historic barracks will be rebuilt and could be used as a shopping mall or a hotel.

In my understanding, although the symbolic Taksim Square issue prompted the entire process, it was heightened by the use of excessive police force and brutality on a peaceful protest. However, at the deepest level, the general attitude of the government on several issues has irritated the entire public. The government continuing to ignore public dissent, delaying completion of a new constitution, underestimating environmental issues, seeking excessive rent increases for the transformation of cities and bypassing judicial system mechanisms have created the message that the government is already inclined towards authoritarianism. In other words, a lack of transparency and accountability and the repression of an “exit-voice approach” have resulted in these protests.

There is discontent in the economic sphere as well. Although Turkey has been one of the most robust countries -- resisting the global financial crisis and growing during it -- there are also several indicators of economic discontent in society. Yes, Turkey has made considerable progress in improving the quality of life of its citizens over the last decade, but it is ranked last among 34 nations based on a large number of criteria in the "Better Life Index" of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The OECD has identified 11 dimensions as being essential to well being, from health and education to local environment, personal security and overall satisfaction with life, as well as more traditional measures such as income. In its 2013 index, the OECD surveyed 34 industrialized nations based on these criteria. Australia topped the list, retaining the title of “happiest industrialized nation in the world,” while Sweden, also known for its high living standards and robust economy, followed. Canada, a rival resource-exporting nation that has reaped the benefits of increasing Asian demand for raw materials, came third in the index.

According to the OECD index, based on data from the United Nations, individual governments and other sources, in Turkey:

    1. The average household net adjusted disposable income is lower than the OECD average of $23,047 a year.

    2. Forty-eight percent of people between the ages of 15 and 64 have a paid job, less than the OECD employment average of 66 percent.

    3. Sixty-nine percent of men are paid workers, compared with 28 percent of women.

    4. People in Turkey work 1,877 hours a year, more than the OECD average of 1,776 hours. Around 46 percent of employees work “very long hours,” much higher than the OECD average of 9 percent, with 50 percent of men working “very long hours.”