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'Occupy' is not a good model for change, in Turkey or anywhere else

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Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

(Read caption) High school students chant slogans during a protest at Gezi park, Taksim square in Istanbul, Monday. The latest 'Occupy' protests erupted after a harsh police crackdown on a sit-in protesting the government's plans to destroy Gezi Park in central Istanbul and replace it with a shopping mall.

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Remember Occupy Wall Street? The leaderless "movement" built around anger at income inequality and the power of corporate interests in US politics that faded as winter came to New York and failed to build a coherent political approach to change?

Well, the slogan lives on. The latest protests to receive the "occupy" brand are the Turkish ones that erupted after a harsh police crackdown on a sit-in protesting the government's plans to destroy Gezi Park in central Istanbul and replace it with a shopping mall. Over the weekend, the protests became about far more than Istanbul's dwindling green spaces, with grievances ranging from the heavy-handed leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to concerns about unrestrained capitalism, Islamist-motivated crackdowns on alcohol consumption, and police brutality. Since, #occupygezi has proven one of the most popular hash tags on Twitter.

The grievances are visibly real, and the protests are Turkey's most wide-ranging for decades. But recent history has shown that leaderless protests are far better at illustrating what they don't like than what they want and how to get there. On Friday, when the Gezi Park encampment was attacked and the broader protests started in response, I wrote: "Branding your protest as an 'occupy' is a leading indicator that it won't accomplish much."

This is not a generally-popular sentiment in the Twitterverse. But political change happens elsewhere, and today comes some support from someone who, unlike me, actually knows something about Turkey. Stephanie Soiffer, a PhD candidate in international affairs at Ottawa's Carleton University wrote a master's thesis on "Explaining varying patterns of compliance with human rights law in Turkey." She writes that the "Occupy love-ins degenerated into shantytowns that marred often previously pristine public spaces and that unfortunately, as time wore on, attracted larger and larger proportions of hooligans and extremists" and that she doubts the approach will work to change much in Turkey:

Sitting at my desk in Ottawa, it is unclear to me whether this handle originated somewhere on the web as a very catchy hashtag or whether it was originally promoted by the protestors themselves. Origins aside, Hurriyet is reporting on their English website that presently the protestors are now identifying with the Occupy movement. This pains me since this is not a protest model that will likely lead to a valuable outcome.

Unless something changes soon, Turkey’s Occupy movements (there are now protests in Ankara and Izmir as well) will be just as forgettable. Like the Occupy protests that have already come and gone, the protest in Turkey is directionless and leaderless. Originally, when the protest was very young and still small, it clearly articulated one demand: it wanted the government to not follow through with its plan to mow down the greenery in Gezi Park in order to make room for a shopping mall. Although the movement grew out of dissatisfaction with urbanization it is now believed to represent an increasingly large number of complaints such as Turkey’s autocratic leanings, its movement away from secular policies and practices, abuses of the population’s physical integrity rights, and its limited freedoms of assembly, of the press, and of expression to name but a few. In sum, a movement that began making one focused demand is now demanding all the rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights and all the treaties and covenants it encompasses.

For now, Prime Minister Erdogan is defiant and dismissive of the protesters – unwilling to bend on the determination to destroy Gezi Park, let alone on anything else, and warning that he could swamp the current protesters with far more supporters of his own if it comes to it. And with no political group as yet to channel and prioritize demands, it remains easy, if offensive, for the prime minister to dismiss his critics as a rabble.

Probably the best overview of the state of Turkish politics and how it plays into these protests that I've seen so far was written by Steven Cook and Michael Koplow for Foreign Policy this morning. They explain how Erdogan's Turkey isn't as democratic as it's often portrayed by US officials. While they place most of the blame on Erdogan's ruling AKP, they also write that the opposition has made the ruling party's task far easier.

Under these circumstances, Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union's requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey's insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey's lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.

The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP's heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.


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