Turkey Protests: Are the Youth at Gezi Park a New Actor in Turkish Democracy?

As the heavy-handed Turkish police try to reinstate order in Taksim Square after ongoing protests, the country’s democracy faces a unique and completely novel test. Disproportionate use of force by police is a well-established state practice in Turkey and clearly predates the current AK Party government. Taksim Square has a long history that is steeped in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces. A number of them have turned deadly, the memory of which still haunts the public conscience. Tuesday’s police intervention came with an uncharacteristic nuance, however.

After an almost two-week absence from the area, the police reentered Taksim along with repeated announcements that their mandate was limited to clearing the banners around the square. This pretext was obviously false, as their operation gradually expanded throughout the day. What was noteworthy, however, were the police’s painstaking efforts to give the youth camped in the adjacent Gezi Park assurances that they would be left alone. Simultaneous to the police’s appearance on the scene, several social media messages were sent by the governor of Istanbul who, clearly under government instructions, tried to reiterate that the security forces acted with a clear distinction between what they saw as peaceful demonstrations at Gezi Park and politically motivated provocations in Taksim Square. Ironically, the governor had chosen to reach the protesters at Gezi on Twitter, a medium recently criticized by the prime minister as a “curse.” At the end of the day, it would be difficult to say that the protestors at Gezi Park remained completely unharmed; the heavy use of tear gas and plastic bullets in Tuesday’s standoff also affected them and it is still not clear whether or not they were at times intentionally targeted.

Gezi Park: recent home to an unusual coalition

As one walks through the stalls and tents at Gezi Park one is struck by the communal atmosphere that seems to engulf this small green spot, a rarity in concrete-filled central Istanbul. Nevertheless, another distinctly unique feature of the protesters here is also the kind of individualism that a great majority among them have displayed since the end of May. This is pure and simple individualism that resents any intrusion into their private lives, such as those attempts by the Prime Minister to dictate how many children they should have or what they should and should not be allowed to drink.

Their protest is also against a desire on the part of Turkish administrators to regulate social behavior. For example, a loudspeaker warning in an Ankara metro station aimed at a kissing couple attracted much criticism; a few days later a kiss-in was held in protest. Another distinguishing characteristic of these youth, as put forward in a recent poll by Konda, is the lack of ideology behind their movement and the absence of allegiances to any political party. Their rejection of allowing any political party to dominate or expropriate what they have started is particularly significant – the Republican People’s Party’s opportunistic efforts to take ownership of the protests were swiftly dismissed.

The youth at Gezi Park are also a leaderless group. This has not prevented them, however, from developing cooperation mechanisms to ensure that the park is kept clean and safe for everyone. Their organizational skills are displayed in the makeshift health center and the small free library that they set up among the tents; food stalls continue to offer Turkish dishes to anyone that would like to help themselves. The park has also hosted a number of lectures, as some professors moved their classes to the site before the approaching university finals. Most spectacularly, all this activity was accompanied with a keen use of humor. The hundreds of banners that almost completely wrapped some of the trees in the park are a testament to the ingenuity of this generation that has chosen wit over violence.

This, coupled with their savvy use of social media, has enabled them to deflect the Prime Minister’s most denigrating salvoes. For example, they were swift in twisting the term that Erdoğan used to call them riff-raff and looters, “çapulcu,” from its original meaning and inventing a whole new slogan for the protest. They took possession of the word and gave it a much more positive connotation. “Çapulcu” is now taking root in popular terminology as a group who champions the environment and personal freedoms.

This is clearly a novel development in Turkish politics and points to the rise of a new generation that is very different from that of the 60s and 70s. The youth then were much more ideological and deeply committed to the agendas of political parties and movements. They were often uncompromising and rarely hesitant to resort to violence. They were followed by the emergence of a largely apolitical generation, the product of an education system installed by the military in the aftermath of the coup of 1980. Ironically, the youth at Gezi Park have not witnessed anything but successive AK party governments in their lifetimes; many came of age in the period when AK party gradually began to strip away the dominance of the military in Turkish politics.

But it should also be said that these youth represent neither the majority of contemporary Turkish youth nor the Turkish population at large. As shown in the Konda poll, the protesting youth display a much higher level of education than the public in general; most of them are also the children of older Turks who received more education than their contemporaries. Nevertheless, if the large crowds that they have attracted to Gezi are any indication, these youth have succeeded in earning the respect of a large segment of Turkish society. Their occupation of Gezi Park has been given support by a large number of citizens; during the first two weeks, their site was visited by thousands, ranging from high school students to the middle aged.

Although grudgingly, their protest was also recognized by the state authorities. President Abdullah Gül was followed by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç in heeding their effort; they were told that their message had been heard. In these speeches, the activists were referred to as peaceful protesters that should be distinguished from the extremists or the politically motivated youth that the PM has chosen to call “terrorists.” The police raid on Tuesday and the effort to spare the protesters at Gezi Park from the fate of the others at Taksim Square needs to be seen from this perspective. The police had to battle with radical youth throwing Molotov cocktails while the protestors at Gezi Park remained peaceful. This nuance may well open the way to an improved democracy in Turkey.

In the coming days, the government, and Turkish democracy more broadly, will face a great challenge. The government appears to have cleared Taksim Square and restored some semblance of calm and normalcy in a city recognized as a major regional, if not global, center for commerce, culture, education, finance and tourism. The major test now revolves around a number of questions. Will Prime Minister Erdoğan be able to draw lessons from these protests and adjust his (widely perceived as authoritarian) policies to be more accommodating? Or will the Prime Minister pursue an age old, deeply paternalistic Turkish attitude towards those with views considered ‘liberal’ or ‘different’? Will he treat them as “naïves” at best, or “traitors” at worst? Will he continue to repeat the cliché of viewing them as tools of a much larger scheme put in place by external powers to destabilize Turkey? Will the government recognize that the youth of Gezi Park represents a globally integrated and highly westernized section of Turks that exists beyond Istanbul, even if as a minority? Or will the Prime Minister pursue a majoritarian view of democracy and, as he has threatened, call upon the youth that support him, his worldview and the AK Party to start counter protests? Whatever path is chosen, Turkey and the world have seen a Turkish youth from which, as described by former UK foreign minister Jack Straw, “will emerge a new generation of politicians” that will hopefully take Turkish democracy to a different level.