turkey-protest

The Turkish riots began in late May, have continued ever since and show no sign of stopping any time soon despite the fact that thousands have been injured and several people have died in clashes with police. However, the original issue was over the redevelopment of a park, Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, and replace it with a shopping mall. So how did the riots get so big?

Obviously, the riots, which have spread to 78 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, are not solely in opposition to the redevelopment of the park, a plan which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was keen to push through. Originally, a sit-in, ‘Occupy’-style protest was staged in Gezi Park, a place which is a welcome sea of green grass and trees in one of Turkey’s most prominent city. However, these initial protesters were dealt with in a very heavy-handed manner, with police trying to disperse the peaceful protest with tear gas and water cannons.

Following this, hundreds of demonstrators marched towards Taksim Square but were met by more tear gas and the situation quickly escalated. By 1st of June, demonstrators were throwing rocks at police in response to more tear gas and water cannons and were chanting ‘unite against fascism’ and ‘government resign’, a far cry from the original protest which simply wanted to retain one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul.

The extreme methods that the police have employed to combat protesters could be said to have created a vicious circle, as rioters react angrily to the extreme policing methods, who in turn respond by using violence to try and control the rioters, who in turn respond with violence against the police. Although the government has since admitted that the police initially over-reacted, the damage has already been done and people across the country have risen up in solidarity with their compatriots in the capital.

Although protesters’ ideological views range across the spectrum encompassing both left- and right-wing individuals, there is a political element in the riots. Turkey has been a secular state since 1928 and the current Constitution of 1982 doesn’t recognise an official religion, even though the majority of Turkish citizens are Muslims.

However, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have been in power since 2002, have been called an Islamist party and some Turkish citizens are said to be unhappy at a ‘creeping Islamisation’ into their secular country. A recent passing of a bill to ban late-night sales of alcohol has been mocked by some protesters, who have held up beer cans and mock-toasting Prime Minister Erdogan in defiance. Protesters have also been unhappy at what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarianism and other policies, such as a sought after ban on public kissing.

Istanbul is divided though, and there are many ordinary people who support the Prime Minister. Some cite the work Erdogan has done on improving the country’s economy as a reason to support him while others say that the violent way in which the protesters have acted means that they should not be supported. The consensus among many of those who do not support the rioters, whether they vote for the AKP or not, is that Turkey is a better place now than it was before the party took power and that violent riots are no good for anyone.

Certainly, the Turkish economy has improved hugely since the 1990’s and, under AKP governance, Turkey has paid off its debts to the International Monetary Fund and it’s growth rate in 2011 was 8.5% (in contrast, the UK’s growth rate for 2011 was 0.8%). Businesses, especially those around Istanbul, are worried that the protests are severely damaging trade and, as f to confirm their fears, Turkey’s stock market plummeted 10% in early June.

However, economic issues do not seem to be in the forefronts of the protesters’ minds as riots continue across the country. Two trade unions have again organised a day of striking, having done so on the 4th and 5th of June, organised for the 17th as they call for an end to police violence. Lawyers have also claimed that they are not allowed to visit their clients who have been detained by the police and some have said that they do not know where their clients are being held. All of this is fuelling protesters’ claims that Prime Minister Erdogan is a dictator, an accusation which he strongly denies, as well as the claim that these riots represent a ‘Turkish Spring’.

The police regained control of Gezi Park and the nearby Taksim Square last week, although protesters have now been allowed back into those areas after days of surrounding roads being blocked off. This time, though, the police seem to have learnt their lesson as no longer do stories of the use of tear gas to move on peaceful protesters dominate the news. However, the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc did suggest in an interview on the 17th that the army could be brought in if riots got out of hand, although later stressed that this was not a warning that the army would soon be introduced.

The riots have lasted over 3 weeks and, although protests are beginning to take a more peaceful turn, it does not seem like a solution to the conflict is close at hand. With the UK Foreign Office advising against all but essential travel to areas near the Turkish-Syrian border because of continuing violence there, it is clear that there are many issues which are troubling the country. It just remains to be seen when, and more importantly how, these issues can be resolved.

BY: Mark Thompson