Erdoğan’s Crash Course in Direct Democracy

Ekim IstanbulTurkey, rising star of Europe and democratic model of the Islamic Middle East, has been in the news in recent years for its steady economic growth. Now the world is watching thousands of its citizens’ humorous and friendly protests from Taksim-Istanbul and other Turkish cities. Seventy percent of these people do not support any political movement and 67 percent are under 30*. The so-called ‘Y’ generation is asking for the right to direct democracy. The conflict seems likely to last longer, as the old system’s gadgets – the police, parliament, and political parties – will need time to learn open negotiation.

01_FRIENDLYDEMONSTRATORSource: the protesters’ crowd-sourced webblog

To be honest, no one saw this coming. Some of us were expecting an economic crash that might disturb the seeming political equilibrium in Turkey; ‘Just as Spain’s economy was fundamentally based on the construction industry, the Turkish economy won’t sustain its capitalism through such crazy urbanization projects,’ David Harvey warned us. Harvey typically reads western economic growth and crisis through the urbanization and suburbanization policies put in place after World War II. Before Istanbul’s saturated real estate market could burst, however, well educated white-collar workers poured into the public parks, squares and streets of Taksim. They were neither victims of a banking crisis, nor had they lost their jobs.

President Gul’s comments, building an analogy to the western occupy movement, did not explain the Turkish resistance. It may have been an attempt to protect the image of Turkish democracy in the eyes of the West. Likewise, Prime Minister Erdoğan could not understand precisely why this was happening during his rule. He first implied marginal ideological influences, then blamed the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as well as foreign agitators for causing the public turmoil. Socialists, Kemalists (followers of the ideology of Atatürk), liberals, nationalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, feminists, environmentalists, homosexual activists and other groups were filling the city’s streets. They were ‘de-politicized’ internet youth, workers, urban creatives, doctors and lawyers, as well as fans of Istanbul’s rival football teams: Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. They were Alevis, Kurds, Armenians, Turks and the whole range of Anatolian mixes. It is hard to believe that foreign agitators could ever achieve such an unseen, and unforeseen, union in Turkey. It is even harder to believe that the CHP could do it – protesters have regularly expressed their anger with the CHP for its ineffective opposition over the last decade.

Not a marginal ideology, but a secretive urban masterplan for the center of Istanbul – Taksim – has managed to unite fragmented communities. No one really knew the exact plans to be carried out on the park adjacent to the main Taksim square. It could potentially become a shopping mall, a cultural center, or businesses with luxurious housing built according to a formerly demolished Ottoman military barrack. ‘My prime minister wants the Taksim project, so it will happen.’ was Istanbuli Mayor Kadir Topbas’s answer to those who attempted dialogue. ‘Yes, we will also build a mosque. I do not need permission for this; neither from the head of the CHP nor from a few çapulcu (looters). I took permission from the fifty percent of the citizens who elected us as the governing party.’ was Erdoğan’s explanation.

This last statement snowballed the protests. A small group of environmentalists protesting in the park became thousands, then tens of thousands. Declarations from the Istanbul Mayor and the Prime Minister must have sounded pretty marginal to the new generations born in the 70s, 80s and 90s, who spend their time exchanging and developing ideas on the internet, traveling the world, and acting in international networks. The 21st century’s young Turks do not tolerate authoritative ‘Sultans’ who reject any form of interaction with citizens. Performing suppressive governance and arrogant bureaucracy combined with opaque and unintelligent urban engineering simply does not function in Istanbul today. This clash is fundamentally neither economic nor ideological in nature, it is cultural. The representative democratic culture of the older generations clashes with the will for direct democracy of Turkey’s new generations. Young Turks require transparent projects, space for open debate and recognition of their collective intelligence for creating their cities, environments and communities.

David Harvey generally looks at urban space as a collection of symptoms of an economic crisis. I argue that urban space is a great indicator of a democratic crisis. The government sees urban space as the stage for visualizing its power over crowds. However, the ‘crazy grand urban plans’ that helped Erdoğan win the national elections are turning into a social bomb, as well informed citizens of the internet society protest their exclusion from the urban process. The capitalistic surplus of such large projects becomes an automatic excuse for people to revolt.

02_ProtestorsontheFATIHSUTLTANMEHMETBridgeSource: the protesters’ crowd-sourced webblog

Using large urban projects to show power has been on Istanbul’s agenda for some time. Hundreds protested regularly over the negative impacts of the 3rd bridge over the Bosporus, a project which would spur development on land integral to the natural water reserves that Istanbul depends on. To add insult to injury, after pushing through this ecological disaster, Erdoğan has chosen to name the bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Ottoman sultan nicknamed Selim the Grim, famous for his massacres of the Alevi minority as part of his war against Shia Iran in the early 16th century. Once more, people felt betrayed by their own democratically elected representative.

03_Bezmi Alem Mosque as Temporary HospitalSource: the protesters’ crowd-sourced webblog

The events surrounding Gezi show how the ridiculous failures of an authoritative government can trigger the taking of decision-making power into the citizen’s own hands by both trusting other individuals and acting collectively. Brutal police behavior can only act as a catalyst to awaken more passive individuals to come out and perform the new citizenship. Protesters have thus far cleaned and re-planted Gezi park after taking it over from the police. They have taken over adjacent vacant land, cleaned it and added it as a new park. Protesting doctors negotiatedthe conversion of the Beşiktaş mosque into a temporary hospital. Secular groups protest hand in hand with Islamists, while rival football fans united by the protests propose to be seated together in their future matches. In a bizarre twist, one could argue that Erdoğan is helping to improve Turkish democracy – he is giving a crash course in the need for direct democracy.

This is beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.

04_Yogis in Taksim SquareSource: the protesters’ crowd-sourced webblog

Ekim Tan is founder of the Amsterdam and Istanbul based city design and research network ‘Play the City‘. She was a guest teacher at our 2012/2013 graduation studio ‘We the people – Democracy, architecture and the city’, and is currently finalizing her doctoral thesis at the Delft University of Technology.

*Bilgi University held a survey amongst 3000 protestors with the aim of detecting their purpose. Please find the detailed research here.