A year after challenging Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s iron grip on power, Turkey’s anti-government Gezi-Park protest movement continues to inspires some, and worry others.
The mass rallies started on May 31, 2013, after police forcefully evicted a handful of environmentalists from Istanbul’s downtown Gezi Park. The environmentalists had been camping out in the park in an effort to prevent reported government plans to build another shopping mall on the site.
Large-scale protests and confrontations with riot police continued for months. Ultimately, the demonstrations against official abuses of power posed the biggest threat to Erdoğan’s rule since his Islamist-influenced Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.
“It was spontaneous, not organized, just to protest the police’s brutality,” recalled one Istanbul man in his late twenties, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation for having taken part in the May-July 2013 demonstrations. “It was the first time I took part in any protest.”
“I felt free for the first time,” the man continued. “As one friend said to me, ‘it was like storming the Bastille.’”
That perceived revolutionary parallel is exactly what still concerns officials. To commemorate the demonstrations’ first anniversary, a rally has been called for May 31 in Istanbul’s downtown Taksim Square, the protests’ iconic epicenter, adjacent to Gezi Park. The government intended to deploy 25,000 police troops and 50 armored vans for the rally; mostly in and around Taksim Square.
In the run-up to the anniversary, Erdoğan also stepped up his rhetoric against the Gezi movement. Addressing his parliamentary deputies on May 27, he blamed the “dark hands of foreign powers” for being behind the unrest. Such accusations have become a recurring theme. They might sound comical if they had not been accompanied by a draconian crackdown.
But government concerns about the characteristics of the Gezi protesters – young, professional and, until Gezi, apolitical -- linger on. “This type of protest -- without political colors and without well-defined political leadership -- is not controllable. He hates this,” political scientist Cengiz Aktar said of Erdoğan. “He demonizes Gezi just because of that.”
“Turkish politics has been under [the] specter of Gezi ever since [the protests] started,” agreed political columnist Soli Özel of Turkey’s Habertürk newspaper. “Every way the government behaves, the way it treats every protest movement, is all overshadowed by Gezi.”
This year, the government has introduced sweeping laws extending the powers of its intelligence agency, and enhancing its ability to control the Internet; all steps seen as intended to prevent any repetition of Gezi. The Turkish judiciary has, on some occasions, pushed back; ruling that bans on YouTube and Twitter are unconstitutional, for instance.
Yet, the courts have also provided reminders of the risks involved in protests. On May 27, for example, an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of 47 people accused of involvement in the Gezi protests, depicted by the government as a coup attempt. Currently, 174 people are being prosecuted for such participation; many face decades in jail if convicted.
The end result is that “people are understandably weary of sticking their necks out,” commented Özel.
“We have a bit of [a] fish memory in this country,” elaborated theater director Mehmet Ergen, the author of a play, “Taksim Meydanı” (“Taksim Square”), based on his own protest-experience. “Terrible things happen, and three months go on and you just remember nothing.”
For the aforementioned Istanbul protester, Gezi galvanized him to join opposition-party politics and work in Istanbul against the AKP for the center-left Republican People’s Party in this March’s local elections. It was an unhappy experience. “They are all so rigid,” he complained. “The party has no interest in people from outside, civil society and I don’t think they will change.”
The ineffectiveness of Turkey’s main opposition parties and their inability to change are among the key reasons cited for why Erdoğan has been able to hold onto power, whatever the scandal, for so many years. The local elections proved another decisive victory, which the prime minister hailed as proof of his democratic credentials and leadership ability.
That success, coming in the face of massive corruption allegations against Erdoğan’s family and ministers, dealt a psychological blow to many believers in the Gezi spirit.
"People had somewhat naïve expectations about the political repercussions of these kind of protests, “ observed Sinan Ülgen, a Turkish-policy analyst at Carnegie Europe, the Brussels branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The electoral success of the prime minister does pose a dilemma to Gezi protestors who claim they are fighting for greater democracy.”
More polls are due -- a presidential election on August 10 and a general election in 2015.
Such elections mean that disgruntled voters “can vent their frustration and, therefore, might not feel need to take their frustrations onto the streets,” said Ülgen.
Sporadic bursts of mass protest can and still do occur – for the March 12 Istanbul funeral of 15-year-old slain Gezi-Park protester Berkin Elvan, or over the May 13 Soma mine disaster. But with the government stepping up the pressure on dissent, the stakes are becoming higher for those considering taking action, according to the anonymous Gezi protestor.
“My brother says you have to stand up. Otherwise, you are agreeing with what the government is doing,” the protester said. “But I have an obligation to my family and myself.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.