On May 28, a few dozen people decided to physically prevent work being carried out in Gezi Park to build a shopping mall and were met with brutal repression by the police and paramilitary thugs. They were surrounded so that there would be no escape route and then subjected to a barrage of tear gas. Their small camp was destroyed and their tents burnt.
Turkish police is known for its brutality (and there were violent clashes when they prevented the May Day demonstration from entering Taksim Square). However, something was different this time. Perhaps it was the fact that the protesters kept coming back night after night, despite being subjected to the same treatment. Or perhaps the fact that the public saw them as ordinary citizens as opposed to hardened “radicals” or trade union activists. Whatever the reason, the protests and the brutal police repression sparked a wave of sympathy which very quickly became a mass movement against the government which spread throughout the country.
The first reaction of Prime Minister Erdogan was typically arrogant, taunting the protesters. “If you get 20 people we can get 100,000, if you get 100,000 we will get 1 million” he challenged them, adding that his mind was made up and there would be no change in the project.
The response from the masses was a huge demonstration on Friday, May 31. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Istanbul. In Istiklal Avenue tens of thousands fought against the police which used a massive amount of tear gas and water cannons to attempt to prevent the crowds from entering Taksim Square. Barricades were erected in different parts of the city and clashes continued into the early hours of Saturday, June 1st. This was no longer a small movement of a few activists, but a mass protest involving diverse sectors of the population: “we are not activists, we are the people”, some shouted. There was banging of pots and pans in neighbourhoods across the capital, while in some places the protest took the form of switching the lights on and off at regular intervals. The whole city was alive and supporting the movement, horrified at the brutality of police repression. "About half past one the entire city started to reverberate. People were banging on pots, pans, blowing whistles," one eye-witness told BBC News.
Another eyewitness described the composition of the crowd in this way: “you could see members of the Communist Party with their red flags, but also ‘Anti-capitalist Muslims’, revolutionary socialist fronts, trade unionists, Kurdish parties, even the CHP (social democratic nationalists), or elderly men and women, unemployed youth, professionals (teachers, architects), lower class people, middle class people and even upper class people.”
Football supporters from rival teams reached a deal to unite their forces against police violence. The first to join forces were supporters of the big three: Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, but they were soon joined by Beşiktaş’ sworn enemies Bursaspor, and then by Trabzonspor supporters who have a long running feud against Fenerbahçe. A Beşiktaş fan tweeted: “The pride I had when Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe fans were shoulder-to-shoulder walking to the district shouting ‘Beşiktaş you are our everything’ was worth everything. I am grateful.” As in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, football supporters provided their valuable experience in street fighting against the police.
The participation of Kurds and Alevis in the movement is also significant and should not be taken for granted. It was a member of parliament for the Kurdish party BDP who was defending the Gize Park protesters in the initial days of repression, only to be joined then by members of parliament for the Republican Party CHP. The site of Kurdish flags side by side with Turkish flags with the picture of Ataturk, next to red flags of socialist and communist organizations reveals the broad scope of this movement.
A Reuters report described the following scene on Saturday: “After the police withdrew from Taksim Square, supporters of Turkey's pro-Kurdish BDP party danced a Kurdish dance in celebration just yards from nationalists waving Turkish flags. They jointly chanted ‘shoulder to shoulder against fascism’. A group of soccer fans from fierce rival Istanbul clubs Fenerbache, Besiktas and Galatasaray joined the chant.”
This is very significant. As a matter of fact, we have argued for a long time that the majority of the Kurdish population now lives in the urban areas, they are workers in the huge cities of Istanbul and Ankara, and their future will be determined by what happens there. Their national and democratic demands can only be solved as part of a united struggle with their Turkish class brothers and sisters against capitalism.
Only a few months ago many would have argued that this was impossible, that the Turkish workers and even a significant section of the Turkish left organizations are infected by national chauvinism. That was, and still is, true, to a certain extent. But a few days of fighting the police together in the barricades and marching together against Erdogan seem to have gone a long way in uniting in struggle Turkish and Kurdish workers and youth in a common struggle, showing what would be possible.
By this time the demonstrations had already spread to the capital Ankara and other cities like Izmir, Izmit, etc. The demands and slogans of the protesters had moved from the issue of defending Gezi Park to a general opposition to the government and the demand for the resignation of Erdogan.
Then on Saturday, June 1st, a huge demonstration of tens of thousands which had gathered in Kadikoy, in the Asiatic part of the city, decided to march onto Taksim Square with the clear aim of taking it over and fighting back against police brutality.
They walked the 20 km which separate Kadikoy from Taksim and nothing could stop them. The country’s president called for the police to be withdrawn and a court ruled that the building project in Gezi Park should be stopped (in fact the mayor only has planning permission for an underground car park!). At 4pm the order was given for riot police to retreat. Had they not done so, they would have probably been over-run by the masses, angry at police brutality and now aware of their own strength. This video gives an indication of the size of the march and the mood of those present.
The masses entered Taksim Square in a mood of jubilation. A first, partial victory had been achieved. The riot police, despite their brutality, had been shown not to be invincible. This emboldened the masses. The movement had now become truly national. According to official figures from the Ministry of Interior, there were over 90 demonstrations in 48 provinces across the country, with over 1000 people arrested, just on May 31 and June 1. The same official figures for June 2 were of over 200 demonstrations in 97 cities.
Clashes now moved to the Beşiktaş district, where the office of the prime minister is located. The masses wanted to take it over. There were running clashes with the police for two days. On the night of June 2nd, the protesters commandeered a huge digger which had been brought to clear out the barricades and used it to charge against the riot police, coming to within 200 metres of the PM’s office. In Istanbul, but also in Ankara, Izmir and other places, the movement had acquired insurrectionary features, with the masses fighting back against the police and in some cases successfully forcing them back.
The background to the movement
What is the background to this movement? How is it possible that an apparently small issue (a “few trees” as Erdogan put it) has sparked such a huge movement? Many learned commentators and clever analysts are puzzled. How could this happen in an economy which has consistently registered very high rates of economic growth and in which GDP per capita has more than trebled in the ten years of the AKP government?
This is not like the “Arab Spring”, they insist, which was motivated by economic and social problems. Turkey has a democratic system, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, they stress. However, if you look beneath the surface you can find the accumulated combustible material which has now been ignited.
First of all, the issue of the building of a shopping mall in Gezi Park is not just a question of “a few trees”. To start with, Taksim Square has an historic significance for the Turkish left and trade union movement. It was here that a huge demonstration of half a million people on May Day 1977 was attacked by paramilitary gangs (in all probably linked to the state apparatus and with the support of the CIA) and the security forces, who killed 42 and injuring hundreds. The return of the May Day demonstration to Taksim Square and the punishment and trial of those responsible for the killing (none of whom have yet been brought to justice) has become a cause of enormous symbolic importance for the left and trade union movement in Turkey.
There is more to it. The official plan of the municipality is to build a reconstruction of the Ottoman Empire Taksim Military barracks which would house the shopping mall. This is seen as part of the AKP agenda to reclaim the ancient grandeur of Turkey under the Ottoman Empire. Last week it was announced that a planned third bridge over the Bosphorus is going to be name after Sultan Selim I (Selim the Grim). This has infuriated the Alevi minority, which Selim massacred in the 16th century. All this reclaiming of the legacy of the Ottoman Empire is deeply offensive not only to Alevis but also to many Turks, who are attached to the secular tradition of the bourgeois national movement of Ataturk, on which the modern Turkish republic was founded.
It is not just a religious vs. secular issue either. The planned shopping mall in Taksim has come to symbolize the type of speculative urban development model on which the economic growth during the AKP government has been based upon. Opposition to the gentrification of whole areas of the city, the pushing out of working class people to the outskirts of the capital, the shoddy construction deals going to cronies of the ruling party, the glaring contradiction between the luxury homes of the millionaires and the shanty towns where the recently arrived workers live was all concentrated in the struggle against the bulldozing of Gezi Park to make room for yet another shopping mall. A speculative building boom was in fact a key element of the sustained economic growth which Turkey experienced for the best part of ten years and which is now coming to an end.
There are also of course, democratic issues. For ten years the AKP has ruled with an iron hand, arresting independent and critical journalists, censoring the media (which did its best not to report anything about the current movement as it was developing), maintaining thousands of political prisoners, using repression and arrests against the trade union movement, etc. This has been combined with a creeping assault on the secular character of the state, the latest measure being a law which curtails the public sale of alcohol.
Many of these things were passively accepted, or at least did not provoke a mass movement up until now, as the economy was growing. It was mainly on the basis of this economic growth that the AKP solidified its electoral support, which went from 34% in 2002, to 46% in 2007 and nearly 50% in 2011.
On the surface, the AKP had achieved very impressive rates of growth. Between 2002 and 2011, the Turkish economy grew by an average rate of 7.5 percent annually. Average per capita income rose from $2,800 U.S. in 2001 to around $10,000 U.S. in 2011. The economy was hit by the global crisis of capitalism in 2008/09, but recovered quickly with strong rates of growth of 9% and 8.5% in 2010 and 2011.
However, quite a lot of this growth was based on a massive influx of foreign direct investment, attracted by a programme of wholesale privatisation of public assets, which meant the country accumulated a massive foreign debt. Between 2008 and 2012, GDP grew by $44 billion, while foreign debt grew by $55 billion. This became unsustainable.
While Turkey benefited from trade agreements with the European Union, the crisis in Europe has forced it to pursue a more aggressive political, trade and diplomatic offensive in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. Behaving like a regional imperialist power, Turkey has attempted to secure markets and spheres of influence in the whole region by linking up with the newly established Muslim governments of Tunisia and Egypt, building strong links with the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq and becoming actively involved in supporting the Free Syrian Army rebels against the Assad regime.
All the factors that created the “Ottoman tiger” are now turning into their opposite. Three weeks ago a bomb in Reyhanli, on the border with Syria, killed 46 people. Many are blaming the government’s involvement in the Syrian civil war for the killing of innocent civilians in Turkey. Erdogan, who had previously openly clashed with Israel, is now seeking rapprochement with the Jewish state as he finds himself on the same side of the Syrian conflict.
From an economic point of view, the “miracle” is over. Some have described the Turkish economy as “a gradually-deflating balloon, subject to erratic and irregular whims of the markets.” GDP growth has dramatically slowed down to an almost standstill. The rate of growth for 2012 was just 2.2%, with domestic private consumption contracting 0.8% in the last quarter.
The headline figures of economic growth in reality were hiding a persistent and deep divide between the rich and the poor. In 2011, when GDP grew by 8.5%, the richest 20 percent of the population held almost half of national income while the poorest 20 percent had just 6 percent. Despite the economic growth of the last decade, Turkey is the third most unequal country in the OECD.
The glaring contradictions between the wealthy elite and the majority of the population are exemplified by a tax system in which indirect taxation represents 2/3 of revenue hitting working people and the poor hardest. Even indirect taxes are skewed in favour of the wealthy, with the general sales tax at 18%, while it is a mere 8% for caviar and 0% for some precious stones.
The unemployment rate has remained at around 9% throughout this period, and the official figures grossly underestimate the situation in which many have ceased looking for a job altogether. Youth unemployment amongst university graduates is around 30%. The official figure for people living below the poverty line is 16%.
The resentment created by an economic boom which maintained inequality was contained by a general improvement in living standards, while at the same time created higher expectations which could not be met. Now that economic growth is slowing down sharply, all the contradictions have come to the fore.
It is this combination of democratic issues and social tensions which has now exploded in this massive movement against Erdogan which has taken everyone by surprise.
The speed at which it has developed from an apparently minor issue into a national mass movement against the government also reflects the enormously turbulent period we live in globally. The overthrow of Mubarak and Ben Ali in 2011 and the massive protests against austerity cuts in Southern Europe in the last two years will have certainly had an impact on the consciousness of millions of people in Turkey. For a while, it seemed that those movements had nothing to do with them, but when conditions became ripe, the idea that united mass action is the only way forward captured the imagination of the masses and has became a material force.
Revolutionary developments in Turkey will have a massive impact throughout the region, both in the Middle East and in Europe. A mass movement against an Islamic conservative capitalist government in Turkey can only weaken the appeal of the Islamists in other countries and at the same time strengthen the revolutionary movement against the EnNahda government in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
There have already been demonstrations in Cyprus where we now can see the prospect of revolutionary developments on both sides of the national divide. In Greece solidarity demonstrations have already taken place, and a revolutionary movement in Turkey is the best way to push back the old ugly ghost of Greek vs. Turkish national chauvinism.
Washington is certainly very worried at the prospect of revolutionary developments in yet another of its allies in the region. Turkey is a key player from the point of view of imperialist intervention in the civil war in Syria which threatens to destabilise the whole region. This goes to highlight how it is only revolutionary events in the countries with a stronger working class that can prevent the descent of the region into the inferno of a bloody sectarian civil war with imperialist powers involved on both sides.
The last thing the US want is the revolutionary overthrow of Erdogan. For this reason they have advocated restraint and have officially complained about “excessive use of force”. Of course, if excessive use of force could have achieved the intended aim of smashing the movement, then there would have been no complaints. What they are really saying is that they are worried that excessive use of force by the police is provoking the opposite effect.
Erdogan is combining arrogance and the use of brutal repression (there were reports yesterday of helicopters throwing tear gas into residential areas), with an attempt to play the religious card. He is now saying that what he really would like to build in Gezi Park is a mosque! He wants to give the image of being strong and decisive, but there are growing voices of opposition even from within his own party.
As we have witnessed before in the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the most dangerous moment for any regime is when it can no longer crush a movement by force, but making concessions could also encourage it to go further. This is the dilemma facing Erdogan and the section of the ruling class he represents at this moment.
We should not forget that he probably still has reserves of support amongst the more backward and conservative layers in society. But this will probably be inert, passive layers, not a force than can be mobilised in massive numbers to decisively face the protesters. There have been reports of plain clothes AKP thugs helping the police in several cities, but these are small gangs, not a mass movement.
Already they are playing a game of "concessions" in order to defuse the movement. The country's president Abdullah Gül has apparently distanced himself from Primer Minister Erdogan, by saying that he understands the reasons of the protesters and that democracy is not only ballots every few years. However, these are just words, as he has not actually made any real concessions and is calling for protests to stop. Erdogan is waving the stick and Gül a symbolic carrot, but what they both want is the same: that the masses should go back home and abandon the streets.
What happens in the next few days and hours will be decisive. The movement has not yet exhausted its reserves of support, is confident and becoming emboldened. If it takes a decisive step forward it could bring the government down.
Which way forward?
The movement so far has been largely spontaneous in its nature, as it could not be otherwise. It developed extremely quickly from a small protest of 50 people to a mass movement which now involves probably millions in one way or another. It has also united different sections of society and different national groups and minorities. This is its strength.
However, the movement cannot remain at this level if it is to move forward. Yesterday there were intense discussions about the need for a general strike. This is really the way forward for the movement. There have already been mass demonstrations in most of the country. People have fought back against the riot police. The state apparatus has not been able to crush the movement for now. However, the government remains in place and the state apparatus is intact.
The entry of the working class as an organized force in the movement could decisively change the balance of forces. A general strike is needed. Already the public sector workers union KESK has expanded its planned national strike on June 5 for June 4 as well. The leaders of the DISK union confederation were present in Taksim Square and its general secretary addressed the protesters. DISK has also called for workplace stoppages tomorrow from 12 to 14h to discuss the situation and is planning a national executive meeting to discuss the issue of the general strike.
Today, both DISK and KESK are jointly discussing the calling of a general strike coinciding with the public sector workers’ strike on June 5. According to some reports the Istanbul Education Union n. 6, organizing at universities and colleges, has already issued a strike call for today and tomorrow. There is news that hospital workers in Ankara are also coming out on strike.
Turkey has a strong working class, replenished and strengthened in the last 20 or 30 years with a massive influx of migrants from the countryside. Its revolutionary traditions are second to none. While containing many areas of backwardness, Turkey also has a very modern industrial working class.
The call for a general strike should be combined with a call for the setting up of committees of action in every factory, workplace and working class neighbourhood to give the movement an organised and democratic character. Such committees could be coordinated at a local, regional and national level through elected representatives.
In fact, if there were a revolutionary leadership with roots in the working class, we would be on the eve of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in Turkey.