Over the past week the depressing landscape of the Turkish opposition movement has been revived by a wave of nostalgic tweets and photos under the hashtag #gezi3yasinda: “Gezi is 3 years old.”
The Gezi protests, which began to block the destruction of a park in May 2013 and escalated to involve 77 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, are recalled like a Golden Age.
The disorder and anger of those days fade into romanticized memories because of the relief that many felt in making their voice heard, resonating in the whole country.
Only one year ago the second anniversary of the so called “Gezi Protests” went almost unnoticed however.
It was little more than a week before the general elections of June 7 2015: expectations were understandably high, as was fear of derailing the elections.
Now hope and faith in a change through the electoral process have faded into a daily nightmare of fallen soldiers’ funerals, car bombings, the prosecution of journalists, and persecution of academics.
But beside the romantic memories of an extraordinary time in political history, the “Gezi phenomenon” is still indecipherable. The very size of the protests made them hard to analyze. Unaffiliated individuals as well as organized groups from all sides participated en masse.
One of the iconic images of Gezi was people showing the leftist “V” salute at the same time as the “Grey Wolf sign” of the right wing Nationalists, in an unlikely display of unity that illustrated Turkey’s capacity for pragmatic pluralism. If asked about the aim of the protest, each group or person would give a different answer but they all agreed on one thing: they wanted their democracy to be functional, they wanted the freedom that had been promised to them.
They all wanted a diverse society where it was possible to practice Turks’ favorite sport — to argue with each other without being delegitimised or prosecuted.
Fethullah Gülen, a cleric and Erdoğan’s soon-to-be nemesis, urged restraint and called for dialogue. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP, paid lip service to the protester’s reasons but didn’t support them in order to preserve the peace process with the PKK.
In hindsight, he missed a historic chance: while two years later at the June 2015 elections his party won a Pyrrhic victory on a platform largely based on Gezi principles, the peace process failed and the renewed conflict with PKK is wreaking unprecedented havoc in the South East.
Individual Kurds were present in the streets, teaching people how to build barricades in western Turkey’s cities, often side by side with veterans who had served in the Kurdish regions.
A year of protests
Though this unity did not last, the first anniversary was almost as significant as the initial protests. One year after the Gezi protests, people took to the streets, the last time that major crowds did so — even if with a fraction of the 2013 numbers. The brutality of the repression was extreme.
It was the end of a tumultuous year.
After Gezi Park had been brutally cleared by the police, the protests took other shapes. Thousands of people all over Turkey followed the example of a lone dancer, nicknamed “Duran Adam,” the standing man, after he stood silently for six hours every day in the empty park.
A colorful frenzy possessed the country after an Istanbul municipality covered the steps of a rainbow-painted stairway with grey paint: everything resembling stairs was painted in all colors, in a silent but visually loud protest.
Then another construction project started, and with it, a new wave of protests, this time in Ankara: a road being built without authorization over a forest, in the elite Middle East Technical University campus.
There were protests every fortnight until May 2014, when a string of street riots beginning with the May Day celebration were brutally repressed by riot police.
On the first anniversary of the police attack in Gezi Park, it became clear that people had no intention of being gassed and beaten for nothing: any hope that street demonstrations would steer the government’s action into considering the wishes and rights of those who didn’t vote for the ruling party had vanished, but the determination to register their discontent had not.
Those who kept protesting knew that they would be tear-gassed, beaten, shot with plastic bullets and often detained and even prosecuted for terrorism under new draconian security laws.
Only two things that year attracted crowds comparable to those of Gezi: the death of Berkin Elvan in March 2014, a 14-year-old boy sent to buy bread who was hit by a tear gas canister to the head in June 2013, and lay in a coma for 269 days; and the Soma disaster, when 301 miners died underground.
Those protests were systematically targeted by the police — lately however, demonstrations have been the target of terrorists too.
A large demonstration was supposed to take place in Ankara on October 10, 2015, to demand a resumption of the peace process and an end to the conflict with the PKK, furiously reignited in July by a bloody feud following the Suruç bombing. On that October day twin suicide bombings in Ankara eclipsed the death toll of Suruç and spelled the end of any hope of peaceful mass protests in Turkey.
Early warning signs
After Gezi, it was clear that the party which had won the majority with a mandate to renovate the country with democratic reforms now aimed simply to keep itself in power.
This was made clear with Erdoğan’s infamous June 2013 “Yeşilköy Speech,” when the embattled leader, then prime minister, threatened the protesters and publicly rebuked the conciliatory tunes that President Gül, Deputy PM Arınç and even Minister of Interior Güler had used to defuse the tension.
Everything that would happen in Turkish politics in the next three years was already in that speech: Erdoğan laid the groundwork and gave a sign of what was to come. But many international commentators, led by journalists who had not bothered to report on the protests beyond Taksim Square and yet insist that they are “first hand witnesses,” preferred to consider the protests themselves a failure, a last-ditch attempt by the secular elites to regain power.
This mindset led statesmen like Carl Bildt to claim in October that “Turkey was on the right path”, utterly misunderstanding the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey.
The December 2013 corruption scandal was another turning point, when three ministers’ sons and the CEO of a bank were arrested with stacks of cash. Wiretap recordings released online then alleged the involvement of Erdoğan’s family too, however this has been denied by a court ruling which declared the tapes a “montage”.
The week of December 17–25 2013, when police refused to execute prosecutors’ orders, the reported irregularities in the “Cat’s Blackout” elections on March 31 2014, and the Soma disaster protests of May 2014 were all stages on a path that had become irreversible following the social and political reaction to Gezi.
At each turn, the government rejected its citizens’ demands for more accountability and the right to protest.
Now that even in the pro-Erdoğan media the rhetoric of “democracy” has been replaced with calls for “obedience to the chief”, it’s unsurprising that people in Turkey see the days of tear gas and water cannons with the nostalgia of looking back on a turning point, a missed last chance.