As I type this, protesters are clashing with police in Istanbul. News and video of a mourner being killed by a stray bullet shot by security forces are going viral, underlining the unrest that has been mounting in Turkey for almost a year. With leadership showing signs of cracking, including the verbal and physical lashing out by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his staff, now is the time to get caught up on what sparked demonstrations, how the government reacted, and where Turkey is headed.
Taksim Gezi Park Protests
The movement that became what we are seeing today started as a small gathering of environmentalists in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in May 2013. There were plans to turn the park into a shopping mall, which was why the demonstration was called together. But what started as small quickly swelled after police used tear gas and water cannons to evict the protesters. On May 28, crowds swarmed Gezi Park in protest of wider government policies, such as restrictions on freedom of speech. Soon, demonstrations were taking place in cities across Turkey, including the capital of Ankara. Over the three weeks following the initial Gezi Park protest, the Turkish Interior Ministry estimated about 2.5 million people participated in demonstrations across the country.
Although in early June Prime Minister Erdogan diminished protesters by calling them “a few looters,” security forces quickly engaged with the crowds. Tear gas and water cannons were the preferred method of breaking up protests, although excessive use of force resulted in 11 deaths and numerous injuries. One now-iconic image that came out of these early protests was that of a young woman in a red dress being doused in tear gas by an armored officer.
The intensity of protests has fluctuated since the Taksim Gezi Park protests, but they have never fully stopped. This is in part due to the heavy-handed approach the government has chosen to take against demonstrations, as well as the decision to forego negotiations to bring the crisis to an end.
Opposition to Erdogan
What started as environmental protests quickly became an outlet for numerous frustrations with the ruling AKP (or Justice and Development Party). Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP have been in power since 2002, winning the three most recent elections by a large margin. The AKP is a largely Muslim party, and many have seen reason to be concerned in Erdogan’s approach to religion. Some have accused him of working against the Westernization of Turkish culture first put in place by Kemal Ataturk, a reformer who is credited with modernizing Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Controversial policies included prison sentences for public figures seen as insulting Islam, an official calling for the “annihilation of atheists,” and a restrictive ban on alcohol sales and consumption.
Other policies also caused public upset. A warning by Erdogan against public displays of affection resulted in a demonstrations that was violently broken up by police, while Turkish calls for regime change in Syria raised concern among many who didn’t support direct action. Anti-abortion initiatives, restrictions on internet and the press, and the continued violent crackdown on demonstrations also fed public rage.
With no end to unrest in sight, the Erdogan government has been plagued by scandal in recent weeks. The collapse of a mine, which killed over 300 workers, drew protests against mine owners and unsafe working conditions. Riot tactics were used to break up the demonstrations, which reignited public unrest. On May 14, Yusuf Yurkel, a government official, was caught on camera kicking a restrained protester, sparking further outrage. When the Prime Minister himself encountered an unruly crowd a few days later, Erdogan was videotaped attempting to slap a man who booed him. Erdogan went on to say, “If you boo this country’s prime minister, you get slapped.”
Most recently, a funeral procession crossed paths with a small demonstration. Police moved in to break up the 10-15 person protest, and a stray bullet struck a mourner who died of his injuries at the hospital that night. Protests grew as news of the death spread, with homemade bombs lobbed by demonstrators. At deadline no further deaths had been reported.
Turkey has a long, sordid history with undemocratic leadership, including a long standing military written constitution. But today’s unrest has laid bare a number of tensions in Turkish politics and society, including religious mistrust. As long as Erdogan refuses to acknowledge the validity of protesters anger, the country will continue on its current path, which could well lead in the overthrow of the Justice and Development Party.
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