New layer of workers, youth and poor has entered the scene with the promise: “This is just the beginning – the struggle continues”
Kai Stein, CWI
“Warlike violence” – that’s how ‘Taksim Solidarity’ the committee coordinating 127 groups in protest against Turkey’s prime minister Erdogan described the actions of the police who stormed and cleared Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul on Saturday, 15 June.
“There was a concert by a well-known musician with hundreds of people and families in a festival atmosphere in the square and then suddenly from all sides the police came with water cannons and tear gas,” Martin Powell-Davis, member of the teachers’ union (NUT) executive and Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales), reports from a trade union delegation to Gezi Park (see Martin’s reports). Thousands had been gathering peacefully in the heart and centre of the city, after more than two weeks of protests.
The police, who had been bussed in from all over the country, violently ended the peaceful occupation that had started on 31 May. They used rubber bullets, stun grenades and intense tear gas; even carrying out attacks on the hotels around Taksim Square which were used as emergency hospitals and places of refuge. Erdogan later praised himself for having given the order to attack.
The movement started as a protest against construction plans to fell trees to make space for a shopping mall on the site of the park next to a reconconstruction of an Ottoman-style military barracks. The attempt to violently suppress this protest sparked an uprising of millions all over Turkey, with daily demonstrations, occupations of squares and local protests. On the 4th and 5th June, KESK, the public sector trade union federation, called a public sector strike in protest against the actions of the police. Strike action was also called on 16th June against the renewed police brutality, this time not only supported by DISK, the left wing trade union federation (representing more than 300,000 members, one of the four main federation), but also by a number of professional groups representing doctors, engineers and dentists.
For more than two weeks, riot police tried to silence the protests. On 15 June the Turkish doctors’ association reported that 5 people had been killed, 7,478 injured, four critically; ten people had lost an eye through as a result of being shot by police using tear gas canisters.
The movement is now in decline.
However, despite the huge repression and arrests, even clamping down on people using their blogs, tweets and facebook accounts, there is still resistance. People are entering the squares in silent protest. This shows the strong determination of the activists and the disgust at the state violence.
New brutalities might re-inflame the protests. More likely is that a new period will now open up and conclusions will be drawn about the movement. Sosyalist Alternatif (CWI Turkey) calls on the parties and organisations on the left and the left trade unions to organise debates and discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of the protest movement. This could be through a country-wide congress in Istanbul to bring all the activists together, with the aim of building a strong socialist movement which could offer an alternative to the authoritarian Erdogan regime based on the interests of the workers and the poor.
A new generation entering the scene
3 weeks of protests showed the changes in Turkey over the last decade. The economic boom after the collapse of Turkey’s economy in 2001 has allowed Erdogan to strengthen his support and remain in power for more than a decade. But it has also created a new generation of workers and youth, who are not satisfied with precarious jobs, low wages and unemployment.
A new layer of middle class and working-class people understand their role in society and do not accept the paternalism of this state, that seeks to dictate in questions of drinking alcohol or which clothes to wear.
Erdogan’s insistence that people should have three children was met with utter cynicism: “Do you want to have more children like us?” young demonstrators asked.
Working-class and middle-class women have developed a new self-confidence. They don’t accept Erdogan’s attacks on abortion rights, interference in family policies and instructions on how to dress.
While the main squares were occupied by lower middle-class people and the youth of the working class, bitter battles between police and working-class people unfolded day by day with little media attention in the poorer areas of Istanbul, Ankara and many other cities.
Erdogan attempted to blame foreign powers and their media (“big game” by “outside forces”) as well as the opposition parties, mainly the CHP (Republican People’s Party) for the protests. He is looking for scapegoats and his comments show that he does not understand the fundamental change that has taken place in Turkish society.
Over decades, Turkish politics appeared as a product of two wings of the ruling classes fighting each other. On the one side were the Kemalists, the wing of the ruling class using secular ideology and deeply rooted at that time in the state bureaucracy, judicary and military. They were responsible for the brutal military coup in 1980, that crushed the left. On the other side were the so-called moderate Islamic forces around Erdogan’s AKP who for more than ten years have pushed back the Kemalists. They have succeeded in purging the once mighty military leadership of its former Kemalist domination and established their own networks. But this movement is not just the re-appearance of the Kemalists who rallied in 2007, expressing the fear of Islamisation when AKP’s Abdullah Gül took office as the new president with his wife wearing a scarf.
A big section of the demonstrations used the symbols of the Kemalists – Turkish flags, Kemal Atatürk pictures – to show their anger. However, it was no accident that none of the Kemalist parties dared to lead the protests. The CHP leader, Kilicdaroglu together with the president Gül, called for restraint on all sides. The fascist MHP, also Kemalist, denounced the movement, claiming it to be dominated by the radical left. Some groups, like the right-wing youth organisation TGB, tried to intervene but with very limited success.
For the very first time many people found themselves holding up the Turkish flag or Kemal Atatürk banners and to their surprise alongside them they saw Kurdish flags and symbols – they were fighting together.
The strong feeling of unity was often expressed by the fact that the fans of Istanbul’s three football clubs, Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, buried their tribal allegiances and linked arms in “Istanbul United”.
A survey conducted by Bilgi university found that 40% of the protesters were between 19 and 25 years old, and almost two thirds were aged 30 or under. More than half had been on their first demonstration and 70% said that they were not close to any political party.
This new generation of young people have had their first taste of the Turkish state and its brutality. The movement brought completely different layers together, united by the feeling that “enough is enough”. Environmentalists started the battle. Then came public-sector workers, under threat of privatisation, job cuts and wage cuts; Turkish Airline workers demanding strike action and trade unionists demanding their democratic rights. Young people alienated by the paternalism of the government crowded the squares. Women took to the streets against the effects of the creeping attacks on their rights. Kurdish people demanded change, as despite the unofficial peace talks taking place between the government and the PKK(Kurdish Workers’ Party) – Kurdish guerillas, 8,000 journalists, politicians and activists remain in prison.
All of them came together under the slogan “Tayyip istifa” – “Erdogan resign”, which dominated the streets at the beginning of the country-wide wave of protests.
They may use symbols of the past but their aspirations extended far beyond the limited offers of the rotten politicians of the CHP. The determination of the protestors was striking.
The dynamic of the movement
On Friday, 31 May, the police brutality turned the environmental protest into an uprising. Spontaneous demonstrations took place all over the country. Every evening people banged their pots and pans in the working-class areas and suburbs. During the first weekend 67 cities witnessed demonstrations. On Saturday, 1 June, the police were withdrawn from Taksim Square. A feeling of euphoria, spread within the movement; people were saying that the movement had won. A festival atmosphere prevailed in the big, occupied squares, not only in Istanbul but elsewhere.
While the speed with which the protests spread all over the country and the willingness to take to the streets every day despite the police violence and tear gas was inspiring, the protests were hardly coordinated.
Action committees were set up but they mainly focussed on practical questions of how to organise first aid, doctors, food, tents and the many questions arising. They were set up by left groups and organisations, but did not offer a way to include the majority of people in the squares and in the demonstrations in the debates and decision making.
Unfortunately, there were no assemblies which were so visible in the Spanish protests or in Greece. For example in Syntagma Square in Athens in front of the Parliament building in June 2011, on a daily basis, discussions were held, everybody was able to express their opinion which allowed a real debate to develop and enabled the movement to draw conclusions in relation to the demands and strategy required.
Sosyalist Alternatif (CWI in Turkey) argued for such assemblies in the squares, in the workplaces and neighbourhoods, towns and villages, to form committees of elected representatives, subject to recall at all levels. A democratically controlled and elected leadership was necessary.
Without such structures the movement, which had rapidly spread to 88 provinces and all major cities, then stagnated and was not able to develop a strategy of how to achieve its demands. Erdogan’s strategy of attrition had some effect, wearing down the movement with daily clashes with the police.
The two day strike of the public sector union federation, KESK, on 4 and 5 June, was an important step to bring the struggle to a higher level. The organised working class is potentially the strongest power in society. KESK called on other unions to use this power and join in. Only DISK, the most left wing trade union federation did so, but they also limited their call for a symbolic participation in KESK’s struggle to a few hours on the 5th.
The trade unions then made little attempt to organise, co-ordinate and develop the struggle further. KESK only called for a new strike for 17 June, when the movement had already suffered severe setbacks.
KESK and DISK alone were not in a position to announce a general strike. However, they could have offered more direction and co-ordination to the movement. They could have embarked on a series of strikes of their associated unions to put pressure on other trade unions to join in and offer a viable strategy to force Erdogan into retreat. Unfortunately, this was not done.
On the sixth day of mass battles with the police, Wednesday, 5 June, “Taksim Solidarity” announced five key demands. This coalition of 127 groups based on Taksim Square became the de facto leadership of the movement. Eyup Muhcu, president of Turkey’s chamber of architects was the spokesperson of this umbrella group which officially had no leaders; again and again he limited the demands to stopping construction in Gezi Park, punishing those responsible for violence against demonstrators, banning the use of tear gas, and releasing those detained during the protests.
These are important demands – but this was not what had unified the movement in the days before. “Tayyip istifa” – “Erdogan resign” was the main slogan, directed against the policies and ideology of the AKP government.
Presenting the five demands as the lowest common denominator, the leadership argued that this could unify the movement. However the leadership of the protests failed to raise the perspective of mobilisations to oust the AKP government. ‘Gezi Park and the defence of the movement against the police is important – but is this enough to be beaten up for day by day?’, workers and youth asked themselves.
Reducing the aims of the movement to the five demands, “Taksim Solidarity” went into retreat politically at a time when the momentum was with the movement, the KESK strike was still running and a desperate search for a strategy to achieve the aims of the demonstrators had started. This was a turning point.
It allowed Erdogan – for example in the negotiations with “Taksim Solidarity” on 13 June – to reduce everything to environmental questions linked to Gezi Park or some police having gone too far. Thus he was able to downplay other social issues. He used it to divide the movement into the good environmentalists and the “terrorists” who raised further demands.
Lowering the demands also did not appease the government. The retreat of the protest movement only encouraged the ruling elite to fully crack down. Reuters quoted (15 June) Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Bosphorus University in Gezi Park, after Taksim Square had already been cleared: “This is unbelievable. They had already taken out political banners and were reducing to a symbolic presence in the park”. This was exactly the time for Erdogan to go for the attack and clear Gezi Park – with full force.
Was it necessary to drop the demands to bring down Erdogan, as he still had and has huge support and as he stated 50% had voted for him?
In a trial of strength, Erdogan mobilised tens of thousands to support him on a demonstration in Ankara on Saturday, 15 June. On 16 June, protesters were blocked on motorways from entering Istanbul, police cordoned off Taksim Square and tens of thousands once again fought brutal battles with the police. At the same time buses laid on by the Istanbul municipality and the AKP carried people to a pro-Erdogan rally. More than 200,000 of his supporters came and listened to his speech for hours.
In the absence of a strong working-class force, the AKP was able to build its support in the last decade in opposition to the old parties and in opposition to the military and the constant threats of new coups. People were fed up with the repression of the old Kemalist elite – and had turned at that time to Erdogan as he himself was seen as a victim of those circles.
Erdogan has support and as a result of a ten year boom can draw on social reserves, although economic growth slowed down significantly last year. However, his election successes rely heavily on the enforced conformity of the media, repression and the absence of any credible opposition.
When the protest started, Turkish TV stations showed cooking shows, historical documentaries or – in the well-known case of CNN Turk – penguins. Four stations who dared to report on the movement are now threatened with fines. The authorities tried to close Hayat TV, a left wing channel.
Turkey has more journalists in jail than China and Iran together. Trade unions’ and workers’ rights are violated.
Turkey’s 10% election threshold, which was originally intended to keep pro-Kurdish parties, Islamist parties and splits from the old, right-wing Kemalist parties out of parliament, is now used against new forces. The old opposition is seen as rotten and linked to the old political system that crashed when the economy did in 2001.
Given the authoritarian crackdown on the protest movement, there is every reason to call for an end to this government and deny its legitimacy.
Alternative to Erdogan?
This poses the question of an alternative to Erdogan. As the demonstrators did not want to see a future CHP led government, what could be the result of the demand for Erdogan to resign?
On the one side, local, regional and national committees formed out of the movement could have laid the basis for a further development of the struggle. Such bodies could also form the basis for a government based on the interests of workers, youth and the poor.
On the other side a there needs to be a political force in these committees that can propose such a strategy, explain it and fight for it. A rebuilding of the workers’ movement linked to a broad socialist movement is therefore necessary. This is linked to the task to form a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme.
HDK/HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Congress/Peoples’ Democratic Party) is a promising step in this direction. It developed out of an election alliance of left forces around the BDP, the main left-wing pro-Kurdish party. HDK, Halk Evleri (a left wing movement around community centres, coming from a Stalinist tradition) and other left organisations need to come together with the left trade unions and trade unionists, including new activists and workers and develop such a party.
The task for the workers’ movement and the left is also to offer those people who still support Erdogan a clear alternative.
The government imposed neo-liberal policies even when the economy was still growing. While in some ways increasing the living standard of people, Erdogan’s policies also increased inequality. His government adopted a policy of privatisations, attacks on workers rights and sent in police against striking workers. The section of the capitalist class close to the AKP was allowed to enrich themselves.
He tries to mobilise support by presenting himself as a defender of Islamic values, against alcohol, against kissing in public and in favour of building a mosque on Taksim Square. These are attempts to divert attention, defending himself by relying on more conservative and religious layers in society. However, they are also affected by Erdogan’s economic attacks.
The movement must reject any attempt at interference by the state in people’s personal lives. At the same time it has to stop the attempts of Erdogan to divide and rule. This is not a battle of non-religious people against religious people. Demands like an increase of the minimum wage, decent houses for all, democratic and workers’ rights can help to undermine Erdogan’s support.
Perspectives – the economic outlook
The economic boom of the last years is the basis for Erdogan’s support and social reserves, yet it also gave rise to higher expectations and a certain self-confidence amongst workers and youth. However, Turkey’s economy is fragile and heavily dependent on foreign capital. “It is not just the size of the [current account] deficit that is vexing, but its nature. Only a fifth is covered by sticky [lasting] foreign direct investment, while the rest is plugged by portfolio flows, or ‘hot money’”, according to the Financial Times (6 June), the same article then summarises the IMF’s argument: that “Turkey’s external financing needs are about 25% of its annual economic output, and warns this will ‘continue to pose a significant vulnerability’.”
The current account deficit grew by one fifth in the first four months of this year. The slowdown in growth rates (from +8.8% in 2011 to +2.2 in 2012) is significant, given the crisis in Europe, which is still Turkey’s main market. Compared to the situation with neighbouring countries in Europe like Greece and Cyprus or in the Middle East, there is still a feeling of economic progress. However, growth rates will only return to 3.4% in 2013 according to IMF forecasts, falling short of the 4% target of the government. These predictions were made before the clampdown on the protests and their effect on domestic consumption and tourism were taken into account.
In his speeches against the movement in the squares Erdogan also hit out against speculators with a certain religious undertone (levying interest is not allowed according to Islam). “The interest [rate] lobby exploited my nation for years, but no longer,” he proclaimed. “I am telling this to whomever – one bank, two banks, three banks . . . you have started this fight, you will pay for it . . . Those who try to bring the stock exchange down . . . we will throttle you.” (quotes from FT, 10 June.)
The growth rates of last year and the expectation for this year are not enough to absorb a growing population into the labour market. They are not enough to meet the needs of the working masses. This is already pointing towards future battles.
Given the fragile economic background and on the basis of possible sharp contractions due to shock waves flowing from Europe and a reduction of foreign investment future battles over pieces of a shrinking cake are certain.
The economic outlook does not herald social stability in the coming month and years – the opposite is far more likely.
The Arab Spring, the movements in Europe and Occupy in the US – all had an effect on the youth in Turkey. Despite all the significant differences of the social support Erdogan can still mobilise, the mass movements for democratic and social rights will learn from each other. The Turkish movement will be an inspiration for the Middle East and beyond.
A right-wing regime, which was presented as a model for the rest of the Sunni countries, was challenged by the people. The much-praised model of a modern, Islamic state was exposed as a cover for a society in turmoil.
Turkey is a Nato ally with its own ambitions to act as a regional power. The warmongering of the Turkish regime towards Syria increased the tensions there, with a whole wave of refugees now in Turkey. People in the protest movement repeatedly expressed their fears of being dragged into the Syrian civil war, which has turned from a people’s uprising into a nightmare of bloody ethnic and religious battles.
The AKP regime tried to exploit the fragmentation in Iraq: oil deals are conducted with the Kurdish north, trying to establish a zone of Turkish influence throughout the Kurdish areas. The outlook remains uncertain. Unless the working class intervenes with its own programme against sectarianism and nationalism, new ethnic and religious clashes are inevitable in Iraq over regions like Kirkuk. This will find repercussions in Turkey itself.
While Erdogan tries to use the Kurdish question to gain influence in the region and bases himself on an alliance with Kurdish leaders to change the constitution (to allow him to become president with increased powers), he keeps thousands of Kurdish people imprisoned for demanding Kurdish rights. But the Kurdish aspirations to end oppression will clash with Erdogan’s aims to turn them into a part of a new Ottoman-style empire, run from Ankara.
Further tensions in the region, flowing from Israel’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the spreading of this war into Lebanon or Turkey itself, alongside conflicts between Israel and Iran with possible US involvement, can all further undermine stability in Turkey and Erdogan’s regime and trigger new movements as well as religious or ethnic conflicts.
However, the primary effect of the Turkish uprising in the region is to encourage workers, youth and the poor again to turn back to the origins of the Arab Spring: the active involvement of the masses themselves to struggle for democratic and social demands.
All sections of society moving into action
The protest movement did not only push the lower middle-class layers and the children of the working class into action – which were the most visible parts of the movement, especially in foreign media. Working-class people in all the urban centres fought hard against the police. The new layers of the working class and the youth just started to get a sense of their strength and the urban middle classes, like architects, doctors and others were also present in the protest movement.
At the same time Erdogan tried to mobilise the more rural population – a step that may backfire on him in the future. The polarisation in society itself is so strong, that it will encourage a process of further politicisation of a new generation, including in the countryside.
But even at the top of society, splits and moves are becoming visible. Just when Erdogan thought he achieved his aims in removing the old Kemalists from the strategic positions in the state bureaucracy, new splits within his own ranks were opening up.
Erdogan’s plans not only to run for president next year (as he is not allowed to stand as a prime minister a third time), but also to alter the constitution towards a presidential system that allows him to hang on to his powers. But the incumbent president Gül, of the AKP, significantly proposed a more emollient strategy to deal with the movement. He might not just step aside, as Erdogan has planned.
Over years of his ascendancy the Gülen movement, a moderate Islamic trend based around the millionaire Gülen living in the US, supported Erdogan. For example his religious schools benefited from the privatisation of education, a policy introduced by Erdogan. However, the splits between Erdogan and Gülen which developed over the last year became much more visible during the protests and leading Gülen politicians criticised Erdogan’s authoritarian style of government.
On the one side, the AKP government felt confident enough to use the military, having purged the Kemalists from the tops of the army. Police were accompanied by military gendarmes. The deputy prime minister even threatened to use the military to crush the movement on 17 June. On the other side, on the first weekend of clashes, soldiers handed out surgical masks to help protesters to deal with the tear gas. Police expressed their hesitation, displeasure and indignation in acting against the movement according to foreign media.
These are the first signs of the revolutionary process behind this movement: all classes and forces in society are beginning to actively engage in the fate of the country. Even if there is a pause prior to the next stage in the struggle, the process that has begun is profound.
Despite the temporary defeat, workers will feel encouraged to raise their demands and to move into struggle. The all mighty Erdogan might have succeeded in the end – but the black eye he got from the movement shows that he’s not invincible.
A big debate has begun on how society should be run. Huge polarisation is pushing people into political debate. The old parties of the Kemalists are unable to express the anger and aspirations of a new generation – and these new layers know it. As long as no mass alternative is built, middle layers and workers may still vote for them. However, there will be attempts now to form new parties of struggle. HDK could offer a way forward if it manages to penetrate deep into the Turkish working class. Left-wing forces are needed to assist workers and youth to find the best possible way to build the workers’ movement. Marxist ideas are needed in this process to build towards a mass party, rooted in the working class, to show a way out of the nightmare of capitalism and repression.
A new layer of young people have entered the scene. They are there to stay and change Turkey. As one of the slogans most often shouted in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara has it: “This was just the beginning – the struggle continues”.
Sosyalist Alternatif (CWI Turkey) demands:
Full democratic rights
- Immediate release of all those imprisoned during the protests
- An independent commission to investigate the police violence composed of elected representatives of trade unions and the movement
- Freedom for all political prisoners
- Full democratic rights including the right to demonstrate, to gather, to form parties and trade unions
- Full workers’ mobilisation against any intervention of the military; full democratic rights including the right to form trade unions for all soldiers and police
- Abolish all anti-terror laws and special courts as well as all repressive and reactionary laws, implemented by the AKP government over the last years
- No censorship, free media – end repression against journalists, bloggers, tweeting people and TV stations, no closure of Hayat TV
- Freedom and equal rights to practice or not practice any religion, end paternalism of the state, end all attempts to divide and rule. For the democratic rights for all to live their lives as they decide
- End the oppression of Kurds, equal rights for all including the recognition of minorities and minority rights. Right of self-determination up to and including the right to form an independent state
- Foreign troops out of Syria, no military intervention of Turkey or imperialist powers in the region
- For a constituent assembly of representatives, democratically elected in workplaces, neighbourhoods, cities and villages to guarantee full democratic rights and social security for the mass of the population
Jobs, decent wages, social security
- End the enrichment of a few, end the plans to re-develop Taksim Square, end all profit-driven projects
- End privatisations, re-nationalisation of privatised property
- End the attacks on workers in the public sector
- Significant increase of the minimum wage
- Decent houses and living for all
- Nationalise the banks and companies dominating the economy under workers’ control and management
- For a democratically decided, socialist plan to organise and develop the economy in the interest of the working and poor people without harming the environment
- For a government of and in the interests of workers, youth and the poor
- International fightback against exploitation, oppression and capitalism. For a socialist democracy, for a socialist con-federation of states of the Middle East and Europe on a voluntary and equal basis