Turkish spring or Turkish geyser?

The ongoing street protests in Turkey have led many people to compare events there to the Arab Spring that took place over two years ago. But is the comparison valid? Pat Byrne, who is based in Turkey, doesn?t believe so.

The growing protests in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey and the brutal reaction of the police to them are a clear indication of the limitations of democracy in Turkey. The protests were sparked off by plans to renovate Taksim which is the heart of the entertainment area of Istanbul. There is considerable dispute over what was in these plans ? the protesters claiming that they would replace the park with a shopping mall and destroy a relatively old cultural centre, while the Istanbul Council declared that the park would remain and that they only wanted to upgrade the area which was in disrepair and introduce better facilities. What is not in dispute is the lack of consultation with local people who had no say in the renovation plans. But such lack of consultation is hardly unique to Turkey. It is is typical of all major cities where local politicians and developers impose their projects on those working and living in them with little thought for the need to preserve and expand green spaces. It is also usually connected to rampant corruption in the awarding of contracts to carry out such redevelopments.

Police violence — nothing new

So too with the police brutality. The disgraceful behaviour of the Turkish police, tear gassing and pepper spraying on a massive scale and beating people indiscriminately is nothing new. Such actions are usually the first recourse of the police here against demonstrations, constantly reinforced by the bitter struggles with Kurdish nationalist youth in the cities of the South East. Some people may recall the appalling clubbing that the police meted out to women in Taksim peacefully marking International Woman?s Day a few years back. Such actions can only arise because the police commanders and officers on the ground are under no democratic control by the people of the areas they are policing.

But is this problem of police violence and lack of accountability unique to Turkey? Clearly not. For example, I watched with disbelief the commentators from the BBC, France 24 etc. condemning the police violence in Turkey and then switching without raising an eyebrow to scenes of police tear gassing and clubbing demonstrators in Paris and Frankfurt. And don?t we all recall the disgraceful police brutality in Greece over recent years or the way that the police suppressed the Occupy Movement in New York and Oakland?

Taksim a far cry from Tahrir

What of the comparison between the situation in Turkey now and the uprising in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab Spring? At first glance, it might seem the same with large numbers of people converging every night on the main square of Istanbul just as they did in Cairo. But beyond this the resemblance starts to fall apart. In the Arab Spring millions of people were taking action against dictatorships which had been imposed on them through military coups or semi-feudal dictatorships. Where to be overheard criticising the ruler in a cafe could result in being picked up at night, tortured in a prison cell and left there to rot for decades. Where all media including social media was subject to the strictest censorship and only the official version of events appeared on television screens and the front pages of the press. Moreover, these were states where neo-liberal economic policies were leading to growing impoverishment and mass unemployment among young people. This combination of lack of democratic rights and rising poverty created a powder keg which blew up in the face of these autocratic rulers.

The situation in Turkey is very different. For all its faults, the governing party, the AK Parti, was elected by a large section of the population and still retains their support. This electoral success has not been due to the AK Parti?s allegiance to Islam but because of its success in developing the economy which has grown faster than any other in the OECD. The media here includes many voices and people are free to publish left-wing newspapers, hold opposition meetings and demonstrations, organise in trade unions and so on. Yes there are journalists in jail but most of these were charged with being in alliance with right wing army officers in preparations for military coups and terrorist destabilisation activities.

The government can also claim positive gains in reducing the power of the army in Turkish society, introducing many positive reforms from the European Union, and attempting to improve relations with Armenia, Greece, Greek Cyprus and now with the Kurdish nationalist movement, the PKK.

Crisis of representative democracy

Why then are so many people now protesting against the Government in Turkey? Apart from the initial spark about local redevelopment, and the subsequent police brutality that fanned it into a bonfire, the motivations of the protestors are multifold. A large section of the demonstrators are protesting against what they see as creeping Islamicisation of Turkish society. Others are Turkish nationalists unhappy with the peace process which the Government has launched with the Kurds. Others are trade unionists voicing opposition to the pro-big business policies of the government. Another section are socialists who want to see an end to capitalism in Turkey.

What unites them all is a deep discontent with the practice of representative democracy in Turkey. It is often assumed that in a democracy it is enough to win an electoral majority and then leave the elected representatives to get on with the business of running the country. However, this is too often a charter for unpopular decisions to be imposed on an unwilling and suspicious population as soon as the election is out of the way, decisions often arrived at through crooked deals or based on the prejudices of individual ministers and parties.

Indeed, the election system itself Turkey is deeply flawed. Elections can never be free and fair when the media which provides the information on which the electorate makes up its mind who to vote for is totally undemocratic. In addition to the servile Turkish state television channels, the rest of the Turkish media is owned by rich businessmen most of whom are more interested in sucking up to the government in order to win lucrative contracts than they are in reporting the news fairly. This was clearly reflected in their initial reluctance to report the protests in Istanbul. But isn?t this the same story everywhere else in the world?

In Turkey, the electoral system itself is geared towards the interests of a few leading parties and to keeping out dissenting voices. There is a minimum threshold of 10% which any party must cross in order to gain even one member in the parliament. This is called the ?barrage? and effectively keeps most political parties out of the parliament with their votes being redistributed to the two or three parties who manage to cross it. This barrage must be the highest threshold in the world! Even the AK Parti voted against it before they became the governing party and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned it last year. Linked to this democratic barrier is the ban on any group of parties standing in an election on a common platform.

Protesters about to miss an important opportunity

These two vital restrictions are effectively preventing a potential alliance of left wing and progressive forces entering the Turkish parliament to raise an alternative to the neo-liberal policies of the ruling party, policies that among other things have lead to widespread privatisation and inequality. Yet the protestors in Istanbul and elsewhere have not called for these restrictions to be removed despite the fact that they would be able to gain majority support in Turkey and internationally for such a democratic advance. As such, the protestors are missing a great opportunity to push Turkish society forward. In fact, the failure of these and other important demands to emerge from the protests could well see them peter out as they did in the Occupy Movement in other countries.

These are some of the underlying issues arising from the protests we are now seeing in Turkish society. Protests that represent more of a boiling hot geyser rising up from the discontented undercurrents of society rather than any spring, Arab or otherwise.

Pat Byrne

The photograph presents the occupation of buildings surrounding Taksim square, events of June 5, 2013; source: Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Turkish spring or Turkish geyser?”

  1. There is a strange emphasis in this article. Its emphasis on a comparison between the police repression against demonstrators in France and Germany or USA with Turkey is peculiar. I cannot understand the reasoning behind this. Is it to say the West European press is exaggerating for some sort of racist reasons?
    I do not know the last time someone was killed by the police on a demonstration in Germany or France. I think you’d probably have to go back to 1986 in France. (Which resulted in huge unrest mass strikes and the fall of the government.) And in Germany perhaps to the 1960? I have not done any search on this but I do normally note such things but feel free to correct me.
    But surely when protestors are killed by the state on demonstrations in a bourgeois democracy it is understandable that people should become enraged and a movement will erupt with great ferocity? Such a level of violence against protestors is not “normal” in West European democracies.
    This recent Al Jazeera report contradicts what is said above regarding the imprisonment of journalists. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/02/2013217124044793870.html Is this article wrong?

  2. Heiko raises some very important points here.
    I too haven’t researched the number of deaths of demonstrators but from what I understand fatalities from the use of tear gas and police batons in the more advanced countries over the years are far from unique. For example in nearby Greece, there have been two deaths of demonstrators in recent years, including last October. In Britain I recall the death of a passerby from a police baton at a demonstration not so long ago.
    Of course, we don’t hear how many have been severely injured which I imagine is far more common judging by the number of head wounds we see in German, French etc. demonstrations.
    The important point I was trying to make is that the use of tear gas and batons is not just peculiar to Turkey but is commonplace in the advanced countries and can at any time cause serious injury or death. Tear gas canisters can easily fracture skulls and cause death or permanent brain damage. The gas itself can cause blindness for adults and worse for old people and children. Also, the amount of tear gas used makes a major difference. For example, the brutal overuse of tear gas by the Turkish police caused the death of ?rfan Tuna who died in Ankara on 6 June from a heart attack that resulted from overexposure to the gas. Ironically, tear gas is banned by the Geneva Convention for use in warfare but allowed by police against civilian unrest!
    On the other four deaths in Turkey one occurred from direct aggression when an isolated police officer appeared to panic, draw his gun and shoot into the demonstrators. The other three deaths occurred accidentally, the first when a tax in Istanbul crashed into demonstrators on the highway. The second died in Antakya from a head wound caused by a tear gas canister, while the third was a police officer who fell during a demonstration in Adana.
    This is not to imply that these deaths and injuries were not a direct result of the violent reaction of the Turkish police to the initially peaceful protests and the continuing mass use of tear gas, water cannons and batons. They most definitely were and I made this point in my article. I was just trying to generalize the problem of police violence into the wider question of the lack of democratic control by the people over the police, a problem that exists not just in Turkey but everywhere. In that sense, I was trying to point to a positive way forward not only in Turkey but elsewhere.
    Finally, on the question of the Turkish media, Heiko asks if the Al Jazeera article on the Turkish media is wrong. In my opinion it is. The title of the Al Jazeera article ?Turkey: ‘World’s biggest prison’ for media? indicates the lack of balance in the article. If this statement was true how is it that Turkey has a host of anti-government newspapers including scores of revolutionary left papers? Can this situation be compared to the Arab dictatorships, previous and continuing? Obviously not. Undoubtedly, human rights and democratic traditions in Turkey leave a lot to be desired and demand major improvement but it is not the fascist prison-house depicted by a large section of the international Left. I even get asked by socialists from abroad if it is possible to hold political meetings in Turkey, which shows how little is understood of the political scene here.
    For example, one important factor that has to be taken into account is the fact that a civil war has been going on in Turkey over the Kurdish issue for the last 30 years in which over 50,000 have died. Compare this to the under 4000 deaths in the 30 year civil war in Northern Ireland which itself resulted in the suspension of many civil liberties there, torture and assassinations etc. In Turkey, any journalist strongly sympathising with the Kurdish struggle is usually suspected by the state of active involvement with the Kurdish military struggle and risks arrest at some point. But on the other hand, the often weekly death of ordinary military conscripts and civilian bystanders makes the majority of Turkish people angry at the Kurdish fighters and their supporters. Unfortunately, I don?t have space here to go into why I think the Kurdish military struggle is mistaken. Perhaps I can do so in another article.
    We also have to recall that Turkey is still recovering from the incredibly brutal right-wing military coup in 1980 which led to the execution of scores of left-wing activists and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of others. The same right-wing forces that carried out the coup, known here as the ?deep state?, continue to exist within the state machine feeding off the Turkish-Kurdish civil war for fresh recruits. These forces oppose the current Ak Parti government and have been seeking for opportunities to destabilise and militarily overthrow it using the Islamic issue to justify themselves. Some journalists unfortunately have become so obsessed over the ?Islamic threat? that they have been drawn into these plots by the ?deep state? forces and are now in prison or awaiting trial.


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