Gezi Two Years On

When the Gezi Park protests started a little less than two years ago, no one could have anticipated the scope of the dissent. Turkey underwent an unprecedented decade of economic and societal stability and growth as well as a decade of both external and internal security unseen in modern Turkish history. Yet after eleven years of AKP leadership, millions of people in practically every major city went to the streets asking for more democratic participation – or during the events in growing intensity the (forceful or not) ousting of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

He is to be hold to account for the democratic developments of the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – justice and development party) years, and the record is diverse: By de facto removing the tutelary power of the military and democratically and economically integrating and empowering formerly suppressed constituencies Erdoğan appeared as a great democrat in the early years in office, willing to finally bring the country into EU membership. But as the military, as the previously strongest domestic balancing actor against sitting governments, lost its powers, no democratic alternative checks and balances were installed. Thus a paradoxical situation appeared: whilst undemocratic institutions got curtailed and democratically legitimized ones increased their room for manoeuvre, the country gradually became less democratic. All in all the record was still favourable for the AKP’s democratization reforms, until 2011 when Erdoğan won almost half of all votes and 327 out of 550 seats in parliament.

Since these elections the government seems ever more poised to push harder for conservative cultural reforms – some of which still were genuinely democratic such as the lifting of headscarf bans – even against former allies and constituencies. At the same time the government strengthened its grip on media, the judiciary and more broadly all state-institutions to silence dissent and clear up space for the ever more conservative and religious reforms. Thus although not always clearly visible in public, resent against state actions in parts of the society already heated up quite extensively during the later AKP years. At the same time former allies increasingly and notably openly criticised government actions. The trigger that sparked the nation-wide protests was a heavy police crackdown on a bunch of protesters who peacefully demonstrated against the destruction of the Gezi Park in central (European) Istanbul.

In the beginning the resistance was small. Still, protesters asked for environmental protection or more democratic participation, particularly in regard to city planning. The increasingly harsh reactions by the policy shed light on the issues though and the protests gradually turned into a big opposition rally. Although no party could really claim ownership of the protests, it was the biggest opposition party CHP (Cumhurriyet Halk Partisi) which dominated the political narrative around Gezi1.

This situation again is paradox though, because it was the CHP’s inability to politically integrate those parts of society that protested in Gezi in the first place. Neither could the CHP position itself as the representatives of the protesters. This is for a large part due to the fact that the demonstrators were an extremely diverse group of people from the far right to the far left, including hooligans, ultra-nationalists, and communists amongst other radical factions. But also amongst moderate factions the CHP could not capitalize angry voices into electoral benefits.

Still, if any party gained from the protests it was the CHP. The presidential elections one year after the protests suggests no or little real political changes as for the Gezi Park protests. But then they are not very representative as the election really was about the person Erdoğan rather than anything else. The CHP could steadily increase its vote though in the last few elections and I personally would be highly surprised if the trend would not continue in this June’s general elections. This is the result of an opening the party undertakes since the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. An opening for the CHP means that it finally started to move from old-school Kemalism and increasingly adopts more moderate positions, most notably towards religion and the Kurdish question. The Gezi protests seem to have accelerated the speed of the opening significantly since they were a clear signal for the Kemalists that they need to find a way to integrate the growing number of dissatisfied constituents.

For the AKP the protests brought about an even more radical change. Whilst the opposition started to open up and even collaborate to a certain extend – as was the case when both opposition parties nominated a joint candidate during the aforementioned presidential elections – the ruling party started a wide ranging clampdown on dissenting voices. The most prominent of these voices was the one of the very popular exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen who lost favour with the AKP since he openly criticised the governments’ harsh reactions. Next to losing important allies outside the party, Erdoğan also gradually restructured the AKP, getting rid of critics, opponents and possible challengers to his leadership.

Amongst these Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s president until summer 2014, was the most notable one. Although it is hard to capture or depicture the restructuring inside the AKP, the fact that Erdoğan empowered his own position is uncontested. Erdoğan dismissed claims from the protesters for more participation, calling them looters (originally çapulcu) and countered them by heating up the rhetoric only more and asking for even stricter laws on controversial issues that added to the charged atmosphere such as alcohol bans and LGBT rights.

At the first glimpse his strategy of dividing people into his core electorate and everyone else by binding the former to his policies seemed to have worked, given his good results at the presidential elections. On the long term though he lost very important allies and although the core electorate is quite big, he will not be able to achieve, let alone top, the 2011 results again. Also the constituency is highly fragmented now, making political cooperation ever harder – in times when the country faces severe security risks from Syria and Iraq, undergoes a very difficult economic period and gets increasingly alienated from the west.

The long term consequences of the Gezi Park protests might turn out as very significant after all. While the ruling party, particularly their leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacts with more authoritarianism, the biggest opposition party tries to catch more dissatisfied voters in an effort to become the biggest party (again). This aim will not be decided by their strategic advances though, but rather by mistakes on Erdoğan’s side. As long as he is able to appeal to the party’s basic constituency he will win elections. Given the fact that he did so (and increasingly so) uncontested for the last 13 years any significant change seems quite unlikely any time soon. The general elections this June might bring some important changes though: the AKP will most likely loose votes and therefore seats in parliament – maybe even the majority, for the first time a Kurdish Party, the HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi – people’s democratic party) has good chances surpassing the 10% threshold and enter parliament as a bloc, the CHP has good chances seriously increasing its vote – particularly as constituents grow wary of the poor current economic performance.

The Kurdish HDP thus is the technically biggest foe of the ruling AKP, which is paradoxical since the two parties have cooperated pretty closely during the last few years in what became known as the solution or peace process. It was this rapprochement process between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgents that directly and indirectly brought the AKP many votes while at the same time it legitimized the HDP.

The fear that both parties have a secret agreement and will cooperate after the elections, securing the ruling party a two-thirds majority in Parliament, most notably on a new presidential system – as favoured by Erdoğan – have been dismissed by both parties though and seem quite unlikely given the fact that Erdogan puts a lot effort in keeping the HDP small and politically marginal. Although the HDP as a party stayed quite silent during the Gezi protests in order not to damage the fragile peace process, it too is clear which position the leftist party has towards democratic participation. This leads to the conclusion that now practically every major political faction in Turkey strongly opposes the current government’s policies, in most parts if not directly caused by the Gezi protests than at least significantly empowered by them.