[Marxism] Crackdown at Taksim

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 14 06:57:03 MDT 2014

Frontline, May 30 2014

Crackdown at Taksim

Protests build up against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but he 
remains defiant, cracking down on the May Day rally in Istanbul and even 
indicating that he may run for President in August. By


ON MAY DAY, SEVERAL thousand people in the Turkish city of Istanbul 
marched towards Taksim Square, one of the city’s landmarks. They came 
from a cross section of society—workers in and outside of trade unions, 
radicals in and outside political parties and people frustrated with 
what they saw as the suffocation of Turkish politics. The Gezi Park 
protests of March 2013 had sparked off mass dissatisfaction with the 
government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep 
Tayyip Erdogan— in power since November 2002.

Economic ailments and corruption allegations combined with a foreign 
policy in disarray did not dent the electoral fortunes of Erdogan’s 
party in the March 2014 municipal elections. Lack of a decisive 
opposition to Erdogan favoured his party but deepened frustration 
amongst his opponents. The May Day rally was to be one of the symbols of 
this opposition. The crackdown on it suggests that Erdogan is confident 
of weathering the consequences. The flutter of disapproval from Brussels 
did not bother him, nor did the complaints from human rights 
organisations. Europe requires Turkey for what remains of its West Asia 
agenda, and it cannot afford another Ukraine-like confrontation on its 

A week before May Day, the government denied the organisers the right to 
hold any demonstration in central Istanbul. Erdogan, who was Mayor of 
Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, took to the floor of the Meclis (Parliament) 
in his folksy style. “Give up your hope of Taksim,” he said, and asked 
unions to meet on the outskirts of Istanbul. “The people do not want to 
see protesters clashing with police in the street. The people don’t want 
street scenes dominated by stones, sticks and Molotov cocktails.”

Erdogan’s party, the AKP, emerged as the singular opposition to the 
Republican People’s Party of Kemal Ataturk and of what is called the 
“deep state”, the military-controlled council and courts. The AKP 
appealed to the new business class of Anatolia, who benefited 
economically as the military government of the 1980s dismantled the 
controls over the national economy, which had privileged the 
Istanbul-based republican elite. This Anatolian business class also had 
fewer fealties to the secularism of the urban elite. That secularism had 
been secured through brute force: laws that denied people the right to 
outward signs of religious piety and that forced through Turkish culture 
at the expense of Ottoman-era social diversity. A combination of 
Republican and military ruthlessness alienated large parts of the 
country. They flocked to the AKP’s curious brand of pious Islamism, 
corporate governance and pro-European globalisation. Dressed in suits 
and ties, the leadership of the AKP eschewed the traditional fabric of 
Islamism. Theirs is the stability of businessmen not the military, malls 
not barracks.
The Gezi dynamic

In May of 2013, Turkey erased its 52-year debt to the International 
Monetary Fund (IMF). It was an important triumph for Erdogan’s 
government. When the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey’s debt-to-gross 
domestic product (GDP) ratio was at 78 per cent. By 2013, the 
debt-to-GDP ratio had fallen to 40 per cent. Turkey’s economy surged 
with foreign direct investment and corporate borrowing—much of it 
entering the construction industry which flourished inside Turkey and 
also in the Arab world, as part of the AKP’s “zero problems with 
neighbours” policy (whose architect is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu).

Finance also lubricated the newly empowered Anatolian business class, 
whose ambitions for global markets were placed on the worn shoulders of 
the producing classes in the small towns of Turkey. The International 
Labour Organisation shows that Turkey ranks first in Europe and third in 
the world in fatal work accidents. “Due to a lack of job security and 
difficulties in unionisation,” said Kani Beko of the Confederation of 
Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), “work accidents in Turkey 
have almost turned into murder.”

Along the grain of mall-driven development, Erdogan announced, in 2012, 
his party’s interest in building a Gulf-like complex with a monumental 
mall and mosque in central Istanbul. This would be built on Gezi Park, a 
public park that had once housed the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks. 
Those barracks, in keeping with the military-Republican attempt to erase 
Turkey’s complex history, had been built on an Ottoman-era Armenian 
cemetery. Erdogan’s monument would put the AKP’s ambitions onto the 
skyline of an Istanbul that is otherwise marked by its Ottoman and 
Republican history.

As bulldozers came to the park in May 2013, ordinary people, angered by 
the destruction of one of Istanbul’s lungs, set up an encampment. This 
was Occupy Gezi. The encampment became a hub for those who had 
grievances against the AKP government—environmentalists, unionists and 
radicals of all sorts. The mood at Occupy Gezi was festive. But this did 
not last long. Erdogan called the protesters looters (capulcular), 
threatening them with violence, “Where they gather 20, I will get up and 
gather 200,000. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one 
million from my party.” As it turned out, Erdogan did not need to call 
upon his party. Reports say that the government flew in special police 
detachments from across Turkey to join the Istanbul police in the 
crackdown that followed. Twenty-four hours after the first encampment 
was set up on May 28, the police moved in. E. Ahmet Tonak, who teaches 
economics at Istanbul Bilgi University, told me that the crackdown was 
so ruthless that it drew in more people. It “very quickly spread 
throughout the country, with more than two to three million people” on 
the streets. A poll at the time, of 4,000 protesters, showed that while 
only 15 per cent protested against the environmental destruction, 49 per 
cent took to the streets to protest against the police violence. 
“Excessive use of tear gas and water cannon supplemented with a special 
kind of skin-burning chemical,” Ahmet Tonak pointed out, angered the 
public. The protests questioned the credibility of Erdogan’s government 
inside and outside Turkey.

During the crackdown, a 14-year-old boy, Berkin Elvan, went out to buy 
bread for his family. He was struck on the head by a tear-gas canister. 
Elvan remained in a coma for 269 days, finally succumbing to his 
injuries on March 11, 2014. Erdogan once more refused any compassion. He 
claimed that Elvan was a member of a terrorist organisation because his 
face was covered by a scarf, a natural reaction to an atmosphere 
saturated with tear gas. The funeral for Elvan sparked another set of 
protests across Turkey. Gulsum Elvan, the dead boy’s mother, said, “It’s 
not God who took my son away but Prime Minister Erdogan.” Elvan’s 
funeral foreshadowed the protests that would come on May 1 and on May 
28, the anniversary of Gezi Park.
No people, no problems

Ahmet Tonak and I are sitting alongside the Bosphorus river, looking out 
at Istanbul’s Asian side. He tells me that the inlet called the Golden 
Horn was once a brown mess, but a careful dredging plan has since 
cleaned it up. The city does not betray the huzun, the melancholy, that 
Tonak’s classmate Orhan Pamuk wrote about in his elegiac Istanbul: 
Memories and the City. Istanbul’s commercial thoroughfare, Istiklal 
Avenue, bustles with brands that are as comfortable in New York and 
London, forgetting that these addresses once housed Greek and Armenian 
businesses (chased out after the cataclysmic riots of 1955). Just off 
Istiklal is the neighbourhood of Beyoglu, home to the hipsters (and 
Pamuk), where stickers and stencils portray Erdogan as a murderer. He is 
not popular in these cafes, where the spirit of Gezi is abundant.

Ergun Aydinoglu, a professor at Yildiz Technical, is the author of 
Turkiye Solu, the definitive history of the Turkish Left. I ask him what 
he thinks of the Gezi movement and whether it could revive what appears 
to be a broken Left tradition. He is not optimistic. Since the 1980s, 
Aydinoglu says, “there has not been any social movement wave which could 
educate new socialist generations and the old socialist cadres so that 
they could come together. Quite the contrary, in the absence of social 
movements, there are now more than a hundred Left political groupings. 
In fact, the Gezi uprising of June 2013 was an important social 
movement, yet it was not strong enough in order to trigger such a 

Aydinoglu’s history of the Left shows us that its high point was in the 
1960s and the 1970s, when the emergence of an active working-class 
movement almost combined with Left political parties to challenge 
seriously the military dictatorships (1971 and 1980) and the elite power 
bloc. A combination of official strikes and unofficial protests 
(direnis) strengthened the confidence of the working class, whose new 
leadership was creative and effective. In 1976, two hundred official and 
unofficial strikes across Turkey culminated in a demonstration by 
100,000 workers under the leadership of DISK to protest the formation of 
the “deep state”. May Day was celebrated that year with the confidence 
of victory.

The tide turned on May Day in 1977. Half a million workers marched in 
central Istanbul, but they were faced with “skilful provocation”, says 
Aydinoglu. The security forces cracked down on them, killing 37 workers. 
May Day was banned until 2010 (when it had to be allowed by a ruling of 
the European Court of Human Rights). DISK’s Beko said this year, 
“Unidentified murders killed workers during 1977 May 1 celebrations. 
Until the state brings these murderers to justice, it is our 
responsibility to celebrate May 1 in Taksim Square.” This is precisely 
what the AKP wanted to avoid—not only the march itself, but the link 
with the workers’ struggles of the 1970s and the Gezi dynamic of 2013. 
Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International heard a riot police officer say 
on May 1 this year, “no people, no problems”—an indication of the 
temperament of the state. The next day, the courts dismissed a 
corruption probe begun by the former deputy chief prosecutor of 
Istanbul, Zekeriya Oz, against 60 suspects, including high-ranking 
members of the AKP. Instead, the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors 
opened an investigation of Oz, accusing the mercurial prosecutor of ties 
to the underground network run by the United States-based preacher 
Fethullah Gulen. Conciliatory statements about the Armenian genocide and 
Turkey’s role in Cyprus as well as on Turkey’s interest in normal 
relations with Israel indicate that the AKP has a long game in mind—its 
European and U.S. allies will forget about the tear gas. They will come 
around to the AKP’s necessity. This is the pessimistic view.

Ahmet Tonak is not despondent. He says that the AKP’s overall vote share 
declined from a high of 50 per cent to a low of 43 per cent. A small 
town in north-east Turkey, Ovacik, elected a Communist Mayor in the 
March elections. Fatih Macoglu is the first Communist elected official 
in Turkey. Nine hours drive south of Ovacik is Lice, where the Peace and 
Democracy Party’s Rezan Zugurli is the newly elected Mayor. At 25, Rezan 
Zugurli is a feminist and fierce defender of the rights of the Kurds. In 
the nearby village of Kocakoy, another Kurdish feminist, Berivan Elif 
Kilic, won the municipal election. She belongs to the People’s 
Democratic Party led by Sebahat Tuncel, who has been undaunted in her 
criticism of corruption and the war against the Kurds. These are the 
small voices of a possible future Turkish Left. The presidential 
election in August looms, and Erdogan has already indicated that he 
might run for the post. It would be of interest to see if the fledgling 
opposition is able to create a Gezi platform against him.

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