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Foreign Policy

Emre Özdermir: Turkish protests are a demand for respect

Emre Özdemir is a foreign policy analyst and automotive industry manager. He has sent this column from Istanbul, where he lives.

The demonstrations that began in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square, and have now spread all over the country, constitute the most influential act of protest against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in November 2002.

On May 27, unaffiliated individuals started to gather at Taksim’s small Gezi Park (an area of just 1/67th of Hyde Park’s) to prevent bulldozers turning it into a shopping mall as part of a state urbanisation project. Two days later Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Prime Minister said of the future of the park:

“The protesters can do whatever they want. We've made our decision, and we will do as we have decided.”

On that same and the following two days, Turkish police acted to clear the peaceful crowd from the Park with an excessive force,  using tear gas and water cannons which triggered confrontation. And on May 31, tens of thousands of people flocked to Taksim – despite the authorities cancelling all public transportation to the Square - in order to show solidarity with the protesters.  Elsewhere, tens of thousands of people took to the streets late at night with the slogan “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance...”

The demonstrations are not aimed at changing the government -- although a major slogan is “Tayyip resign,” but are targeted against the government’s methods of ruling. Erdogan’s government has a majority in parliament (327 of 550) and strong influence on the judiciary. The role of media is very limited, and there is no real civil society to balance the actions of government. Thus there is a lack of both the seperation of powers and civil society - which are needed for a prosperous democracy.

It is also important to pay attention to the timing of the demonstrations: Firstly, Erdogan has been criticised for his policy on Syria, which many in Turkey see as the cause of the twin car bombs that killed at least 52 people on May 14 in Reyhanlı, a town near Syrian border. Secondly, the demonstrations came just after the imposition of restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks.  Erdogan said at a party meeting on May 28 that, “According to my belief, I do not drink. If one would like to, they can drink at home…”

The protests are also a sign of worsening background conditions. Basic living standards, the educational system, justice, separation of powers, moral and religious freedom, equality in representation, transparency, respect for differences, freedom of speech, and accountability or free civil society have worsened for many in Turkey. According to the UN’s latest Human Development Index, Turkey is in 92nd place between Tonga and Belize and has the second worst record in Europe, ahead only of Moldova.

According to Freedom House’s annual report, Turkey is listed as “partly free.” Her civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 this year due to the pretrial detention of thousands of individuals – including journalists, union leaders, students and millitary officers in campaigns that many believe to be politically motivated.  Turkey is listed in the same group on political rights as such countries as Bangladesh, Botswana, Tanzania or Liberia. She shares the same civil liberties ranking as Zambia, Uganda, Niger or Kenya.

Another report, The Press Freedom Index 2013  published by Reporters Without Borders highlights the state of press freedom in Turkey. Turkey occupies 154th place - down from 99th in 2002 among 179 countries. Turkey continued her fall in the table this year, dropping six places (following one of ten of last year) due to the dramatic escalation in the judicial harassment of journa­lists. According to the 2012 and 2013 reports, the unprecedented extension of the range of arrests, massive phone taps and the contempt shown for the confidentiality of jour­nalists’ sources have helped to reintroduce a climate of intimidation in the media and “make Turkey today the world’s biggest prison for journalists”.

The demonstrations ---  or one may say, the “uprising” --- are not only to save a park but aimed at Erdogan, who is planning to run for the presidency next year and has been trying to change the constitution to create a more powerful presidential system, in which he does not cooperate with any non-AKP members or civil society representatives. Millions want to be heard instead of being ignored. So the demonstrations are a peaceful call for respect - respect for choices, respect for differences and respect for life style.

It is clear that Erdogan was not expecting such a resistance in a time where he believed his hold on supreme power was secure. There will be two major elections next year (local elections in March and the presidential election in August) which will be the first time we will elect a president by public vote after a constitutional change in 2007 - and in which Erdogan is planning to run.

There may also be a referendum on constitutional changes. It is too early to say for sure how recent events will impact on the elections, since the competence of the opposition parties is in serious doubt.  The Turkish people will now see whether Erdogan will listen the voice of the people - or fail to remember his own call to Assad, Mubarak and Gaddafi: “If you don’t listen your own people and if you continue to persecute them, you must step down...”


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