Confronting the cause of the protests in Turkey
The Justice and Development Party – in Turkish the AKP – has been in power since 2002 and has won three nationwide general elections. In every election thereafter, the government party has taken first place with an increasing percentage of the vote.
Moreover, in the last elections in 2011, the AKP gained half of the vote, which certainly seemed impressive to many.
During these years in power, there have been several significant positive steps that have made Turkey more powerful, such as huge infrastructure improvements – railways, airports etc – massive investments in the healthcare system and so on.
In the first years in power, the AKP's handling of foreign affairs was also appreciated and was referred to as ‘zero-problem foreign policy’ as the government attempted to play an increasing role in promoting international security and prosperity in the region. Gross domestic product per capita has tripled in the same period.
During this time the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (in Turkish CHP), was unable to form an alternative or visionary set of policies that impressed voters.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan made his stand more powerful in the country as well as on the wider political stage. Even within the party in power, members rarely opposed any party policies due to Erdogan's style of strong, autocratic leadership.
Erdogan began to ignore his critics and the principal facets of democracy were slowly eroded as his regime became more authoritarian.
Under the administration of the AKP and Erdogan there were also other issues that rankled the public. For instance, several journalists have been jailed and many judicial authorities have been placed under investigation.
Moreover, the threat to freedom of expression was clearly visible in regulations set for television series and nationwide internet censorship. Furthermore, instability in foreign affairs after 2010 has led to concern over the direction that has been adopted, which doesn’t reflect public opinion.
The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has a project to build a complex with a shopping mall, Ottoman Barracks and residence. However, the location was near Taksim Square in Gezi Park, which has raised several concerns among environmentalists, and many people are opposed to a shopping mall project in the city’s main square.
On 27 May, inhabitants of this neighbourhood and some environmentalists started to protest against the project. In the following days, the police response was uncontrolled and violent actions unleashed on the protestors triggered a mass movement of people to the area.
In short, a small protest about a park led to a series of demonstrations by the public.
Police violence and use of teargas and water cannons fuelled the desire of the people to resist such actions, and this in turn engaged the attention of several international organisations, such as the European Students’ Union.
However, what makes the protests unique is the backgrounds of the people involved and their style of protest. Normally, protests are carried out by people who have similar political views and economic and social backgrounds. However, what has been happening in Taksim Square bucks the formula.
The diversity of the people seen on the ground includes wealthier and lower income people, from professors and actors to students. Even the fans of strong rival football clubs – from Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas – took part in these protests.
Several publications have depicted the resistance as a direct opposition to Erdogan and the AKP, and for many of the protestors it is.
Main source of protest
However, if we analyse it in more depth, the main source of opposition is a protest against authoritarianism and restrictions to liberty. The prime minister is being held up as the source of these restrictions.
Interestingly, however, one of the causes of these protests is the lack of success of opposition parties over the past decade, and frustration with them could be clearly seen in a variety of social media around the protests where people commented that no opposition party was desired in Taksim Square.
Unfortunately in the second week of the protests, there was violence due to the involvement of some political factions.
On the whole, the protests are a significant chance for Turkey’s democracy to leap forward if all politicians, especially those with old-fashioned ideologies, learn the lessons.
In future, as a young citizen of Turkey, I would like to see more open-minded, visionary and young politicians in parliament – the average age of MPs is over 50. I believe that our generation can help transform Turkey into a developed nation.
Primarily, the message of the young protestors was: "We are not an apolitical, reckless generation and we do not want to be restricted by ideological rigidity."
* Ozan Demirer is Turkish student doing his masters at ETH Zürich.