Can the Turkish Spring become a hot Summer?
As night fell on the evening of June 15th, hundreds of riot police advanced behind water cannon and clouds of tear gas to clear Gezi Park. Not content with bulldozing the encampment, they pursued protesters into neighbouring streets, even storming a hotel and preventing ambulances reaching the injured.
What started as a protest against the profit-motivated destruction of an urban park quickly escalated into a nationwide resistance to the government’s brutal crackdown.
As the protests spread to more than 70 towns and cities, the response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was to denounce the protesters as “marauders, terrorists and extremists”, as well as jailing dissident journalists and lawyers, before sending in the police to smash the protests with rubber bullets and tear gas. But the scale of the revolt meant that it could not be ended by this show of force. Even a second attack, which cleared Taksim Square on June 12, resulted in a stalemate.
Erdoğan then appeared to make some concessions, proposing a referendum on the proposed building project, but the occupiers of Gezi Park rightly rejected this, insisting that the whole project be simply cancelled, as well as demanding the release of all those arrested and the sacking of the police chiefs who had ordered the attacks on the demonstrations.
The roots of resistance
The speed with which the original protest spread across the country had already made it clear that the proposal to uproot a park and replace it with a shopping centre and hotel was the trigger, not the cause, for a nationwide uprising that challenged the government's rule.
Although Turkey is formally a parliamentary democracy, its state structures and institutions remain highly authoritarian. Reflecting this, the protest movement that sprang up, as if from nowhere, showed many similarities with both the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements of the USA and Western Europe. What united so many people – and what could still divide them?
Anger at police violence, youth unemployment above 20 per cent, nine per cent inflation eroding wages and reactionary social policies are all factors. Opposition to the creeping authoritarianism of Erdogan’s regime and the limits on the freedom of the press, judiciary and public protest further fan the flames of popular anger.
The social make-up of the protests was as diverse as the motivations which fuelled them.
In the immediate aftermath of the first attack on Gezi Park, the working class districts around the neighbouring Taksim Square were emptied as workers, with youth and women prominent amongst them, flooded out to erect barricades and drive the police out.
Those sections of the urban working class who fought to defend Taksim Square have a very real material motivation for their actions. The government’s plans are not only to bulldoze Gezi Park but also large parts of the surrounding Taksim neighbourhood to build luxury apartments - effectively banishing the working class and the poor to the outer fringes of the sprawling metropolis.
Erdoğan’s “grand projects” also include the construction of a third international airport, the largest in Europe, costing $29 billion, and the destruction of a forest to allow the building of a third bridge across the Bosphorus.
The diplomatic cables revealed by “Wikileaks” show that US authorities believe that Erdoğan has amassed a huge personal fortune through the sale of Turkish state assets to foreign investors. Tight control of the media prevents corruption scandals reaching the public, preserving for a time the virtuous reputation of the pious Erdoğan.
Gezi Park has become a potent symbol of the rampant cronyism which binds the AKP to the neoliberal policies of Turkey’s business elite. Planning permission is exchanged for a cut of the profit and political support.
Also attracted to the protests in large numbers were women and youth opposed to the raft of new laws which undermine Turkey’s secular constitution. Alongside socialists and progressive activists they are fighting to reverse limits on access to abortion and to overturn reactionary ‘public morality’ measures like the infamous ‘kissing ban’.
The Kurdish Question
In many towns and cities protests were joined by sections of the country’s oppressed Kurdish communities. Kurds make up one fifth of the country’s population and have been cruelly oppressed and denied national and cultural rights for decades. The solidly Kurdish regions in eastern Anatolia have been occupied by the army, which committed numerous atrocities in its war against the PKK guerrillas. Many Kurds have moved to the big cities where they constitute upwards of a quarter of the population.
While the Kurds are by no means united in their strategy, or even in a desire, for achieving an independent state of their own, their hatred of every government’s violent war against the Kurds provides sufficient motivation for joining the protests.
For generations, the racist division between Turkish and Kurdish workers has been a vital advantage of the Turkish ruling class. However, Erdoğan's foreign policy ambitions to make Turkey a major regional power have led him to a policy of negotiation with the PKK. This aims, ultimately, at assimilating elements of the Kurdish leadership into his coalition, the better to develop relations with the Kurdish region of Iraq. Clearly, a government based on Turkish nationalism could not achieve this, and it is this fact that motivates his drive to replace secularism with Sunni Islamism.
Creating democratic structures to unite the common interests of Turkish and Kurdish workers will be critical in thwarting Erdogan’s divide and rule strategy. The occupied squares have shown the potential of united action but only recognition of the Kurds' right to national self-determination could ensure lasting unity based on equality and solidarity. That would remove one of the most effective weapons in the armoury of the ruling class, the policy of divide and rule.
Who should lead?
The spontaneous nature of the uprising carries within it all the inner contradictions and conflicts that usually exist bubbling below the surface of society. On top of that, Erdoğan can still rely on widespread support, particularly in the rural areas but also among sections of the urban poor who have benefited from the welfare aspects of his muslim social policy. The working class is the only social force which, by fighting for its own class interests, can also provide leadership and a way forward for all these groups.
The ability to do that will now be tested immediately by Erdoğan's crackdown. As we go to press, the Confederation of Public Sector Unions, KESK, has already called a general strike for Monday June 17 and this could be the signal for action beyond the public sector. The planned strike of engineering workers should be brought forward and all trades unionists should demand that their leaders call them out officially – and if they will not, then the rank and file should take action themselves.
The mass public meetings that have been a feature of the movement in solidarity with Gezi Park could become not only democratic forums for debate but develop into “action councils” to organise and extend the strike. This must not remain a one-day token of protest but take up Erdoğan's challenge and make a reality of the demand that was increasingly heard in the demonstrations, “the government must go!”
All determined general strikes inevitably raise the question of who should rule. The main opposition party to the AKP, the CHP, have joined the protests and undoubtedly want to see the downfall of Erdoğan, but they are false friends of the working class and poor. Their close ties to the military high command, who have been over-ruled by Erdoğan, make clear that, despite their secularism and vocal opposition to Erdoğan's religious agenda, their programme is for the restoration of their own authoritarian rule.
To make any alliance with, let alone rely on, such forces would be the surest path to setback and defeat for the workers and youth who have battled in the streets for two weeks.
Fight to win
If there are similarities to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, then there are lessons to be learnt from them as well. As with Tahrir Square and Wall Street, the occupation of Taksim was both a powerful symbol of protest and an open challenge to the ruling authorities. The ultimate strength of the movement, however, will depend on the development of forces in society as a whole, in particular of working class organisations, just as it was with the new and more radical unions in the industrial towns of the Nile Delta.
In Turkey, now that Taksim and Gezi have been retaken by the government forces, the task is to continue the struggle by organising and mobilising the working class in every city and every union, enforcing the general strike not only for the movement's original demands – the abandonment of all plans to redevelop the district, release of all those detained and dismissal of the police and municipal leaders who ordered the attacks on the protests, but for the repeal of all the repressive measures already introduced and the repeal of all laws restricting democratic rights, particularly those affecting women and the Kurdish communities.
Above all, those committed to building the movement into a force that can not only bring down Erdoğan but break up the whole repressive state apparatus and replace ith with the rule of the workers' and peasants' own organisations , must form themselves into a political party, that can lead that fight to the end.