Reclaiming politics by Sabine Freizer*

Reclaiming politics by Sabine Freizer*

On day five of the Taksim-Gezi Park protests, demonstrators tried various means to make their way to Taksim Square. (Photo: Kürşat Bayhan, Today's Zaman)

June 02, 2013, Sunday/ 17:22:00

It felt like victory after İstanbul's demonstrators reclaimed the heart of İstanbul, Taksim Square, on June 1. The protests had begun a few days earlier when a small group of activists blocked a bulldozer from uprooting trees in Gezi Park behind Taksim's central square -- in what appeared to be a first step in the transformation of the park into a large building.

The protestors organized a peaceful sit-in that was broken up repeatedly by police using excessive force. Then, on May 31, after police barricaded the park, the protest spilled into Taksim, where police all day launched tear gas on people gathering in the square or on İstanbul's main pedestrian İstiklal Avenue and its surrounding streets.

Finally in the afternoon of June 1, after tens of thousands went out to protest against police behavior, the police pulled back, and İstanbul's citizens demonstrated that they could reclaim their public space. But what else did these events show about Turkish political life and democracy?

Clearly, this was no “Arab Spring” or “Tahir Square uprising” as some early, overly excited social media users called it. As Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reminded his listeners, Turkey is a democracy and anyone who has problems with the government can make their choice in elections.

But it does show a deep sense of frustration with the state of the country's politics. Many of the people who were out on the streets feel that their voices are no longer being heard. The last elections, held in June 2011, gave almost 50 percent to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), 26 percent to the Republican's People Party (CHP) and 5.5 percent to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Since then, the AKP, and especially the prime minister, have increasingly flaunted their majority status, as the opposition has been unable to gain much traction.

The media losing its voice

Meanwhile, the media has lost much of its voice. Journalists have been fired from their jobs or have gotten tangled up in long slander cases for criticism and investigative reporting. Almost 50 journalists are behind bars according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). While there is some debate and courageous writing in print and on social media, where some commentators have tens of thousands of followers, Turkish television looks almost Soviet at times.

Over the weekend, while the battles were going on in the center of İstanbul and other cities, most of the biggest channels showed entertainment and cultural programs. Turks either turned to an almost previously unheard-of channel “Halk TV” (People TV) or to social media. While CNN International was running live from Taksim on the evening of June 1, CNN TÜRK was showing dolphins and penguins.

Yet, this is a key moment in Turkey's political life as the country's lawmakers are re-writing the Constitution. If anything, shouldn't the prospect of a new constitution rally political debate and participation? While there were some initial public meetings on the constitution in 2012, the debate over the new text has since occurred mainly behind closed doors within a parliamentary commission. Again, the media is not helping. The news is almost always bad: The committee fails to agree; the committee is given another three months; the AKP is going to give up and submit its own text. Until now, the vast majority of Turks have felt no sense of responsibility or participation in the process.

Events of the past few days may have changed that. For the demonstrations that started to protect a park quickly became an open criticism of the prime minister's rule. His hard-line, uncompromising speech on the morning of June 1, and his pledge to move ahead with construction at Gezi Park, helped push into the streets many of İstanbul's middle aged citizens who were still debating whether or not they were “activist enough” to brave police tear gas. In the massive protest rally that followed, one of the most common slogans was “Erdoğan, resign.”

The prime minister is nowhere near leaving his post, and he probably still has the support of 50 percent of the country's electorate. But there have been rumors that the constitution will be used by the AKP to transform Turkey's government into a presidential system, with Erdoğan taking over the new, powerful presidential role in 2014. With a five-year presidential term, this could make Erdoğan head of state for another decade -- until 2023, the centennial anniversary of the country's founding.

The İstanbul protests demonstrated what people can accomplish when they join together, across religious, economic and ideological lines. But they also show the limitations of street action in a democracy based on the rule of law. The next battle should happen in Parliament and at the polls -- and 2014, with local and presidential elections and a possible referendum on a new constitution, will provide ample opportunity. But if that opportunity is not to be squandered, the media, political parties and governing elites needs to start taking their democratic roles seriously. It's time to reclaim a space in normal -- but essential -- politics.


*Sabine Freizer is the former Europe program director for the International Crisis Group.