A year on from the Gezi protests, all of Turkey is reflecting. Today, thousands of police and tens of armoured vehicles have been deployed to keep protestors out of Taksim Square. But this hasn’t been enough to stop people gathering – in Besiktas, in Kadikoy, in other parts of the city that are increasingly the focus of demonstrations.
In reflecting on the impact of Gezi on Turkey over the last year, my two cents worth is this: Gezi was massively significant for two reasons, and it has yet to live up to its aims.
The first reason for Gezi’s significance, which you hear all over the place, is that it was the first time since the AKP swept to power more than ten years ago that large numbers of people stood up publicly against what they saw as the increasingly authoritarian leanings of the government.
The second reason the protests were significant is this (and I’m sure not everyone’s going to like this): it was only because of the achievements of the very same government that allowed these mass protests to sweep out onto the streets. The AKP’s laudable economic achievements – raising incomes for thousands and living standards for millions more – allowed people, some for the first time, to demand something more than increased prosperity. What’s more, the AKP government succeeded where all its predecessors had failed in breaking the power of the military over Turkish politics. Cue a massive opening of democratic space in Turkey. Again, by solving this problem – albeit imperfectly – the government (inadvertently) helped people to start demanding yet more democracy in Turkey.
The Gezi protests were, and still are, widely seen as a seminal moment in contemporary Turkish politics – whether as a symbol of a more outspoken and active population or as a symbol of the government’s increased intolerance of dissent. But, personally, I feel the protest movement has fallen short of its aims, one year on. It hasn’t (yet) turned into a broad-based opposition movement that steps outside the traditional lines of Turkish politics. As the recent local elections demonstrated – with the AKP winning an overwhelming 43% of the general vote – the protest movement hasn’t (yet) been able to penetrate a wider section of society. Of course, I know that a year is not a very long time. But this remains the essential – and unmet – challenge for the movement that Gezi inspired – to present a meaningful, coherent and viable alternative to the existing political parties. Until this happens, the future of Turkey’s democracy is in trouble.