The Taksim Protests : The Return of Secular Low Politics ?

Les manifestations de la place Taksim traduisent clairement la nécessité sociale d’un ordre politique plus proche des réalités contemporaines. Elles ont manifestement secoué le contexte politique en Turquie. Personne ne peut dire quelles en seront les conséquences à long terme. Mais, observe Gökhan Bacik, de l’Université de Zirve, sur le site du German Marshall Fund of the United States, les manifestants ont posé la question, simple et grave : qui sera le leader inspiré qui traduira les aspirations sociales pour une politique plus libérale et individualiste.

The Taksim Gezipark protests in Istanbul (“the Taksim protests”) have quickly become the most critical issue in Turkey. Despite their current sizeable impact on Turkish politics, it is safely said that at their outset, everyone underestimated the potential magnitude of these protests. Some pundits have moved with astonishing alacrity to compare these protests with those of the Arab Spring, and even to ask whether they are the Turkish version of it. President Abdullah Gül has given his unequivocal “no” answer to this. To him, these protests are the look-alikes of the European social protests such as those of environmental protection movements. For many sociological and political reasons, they cannot be seen as an Arab Spring-like development. However, the reactions to them in Turkey have not been the typical reactions of democratic Western countries. What we have here is the product of Turkey’s peculiar social and political fabric. Thus, an analysis of the Taksim protests has to be an intensive sociological probe.

Meanwhile, these protests cannot be analyzed out of the grand Turkish political conjecture. Thus, in one sense, these protests could be read as a clamorous prelude to “Turkey 2014,” when the Turkish people will be facing major turning points, including a presidential election. Undoubtedly, events in the interim have the potential to have certain impacts on the long electoral process in 2014.


The Return of Secular Low Politics


Since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the secular reaction was formulated in the style of high politics. The masses shouted for secularism, Kemalism, or for other such nebulous policy issues. The situation is different in the Taksim protests. That whole process was triggered by a civilian reaction to an urban planning project. The old secular or Kemalist slogans are barely heard. (There were indeed several radical groups shouting the traditional Kemalist slogans, particularly in Ankara. However, they are not in a position to define the general characteristics of the whole protests.) The protestors themselves do not want to see party banners in their midst. They are protesting the AKP’s intrusion into daily life, not any ideological point.

In fact, sociologically, this way of protest is itself the fruit of the AKP’s successful economic policies over the last decade. Most of the young protesters probably cannot remember pre-Erdoğan Turkey. Ten years of AKP rule in Turkey has created a strong middle class with a firm demand for individual autonomy. Their demands symbolize the rise of a new arena of political competition in Turkish politics : daily life.

As sociologists like Ian Burkitt demonstrate, daily life is the most critical level of political activism in urban societies. In Turkey, the new middle class, people of different political origins (including even the conservatives) are extremely sensitive about their personal autonomy in daily life. Apart from political identity, what we face is the emergence of a “new individual” in Turkey. For instance, father-son relations, even in the most conservative families, are seriously different today from what they were 20 years ago. The new individual’s relations with family, political group, and state are totally different from those of that individual’s elders. Ironically, thanks to the AKP, there is a new generation of young people who have experienced no major economic crisis in the last decade.

Seen in this way, the Taksim protesters can readily be dubbed the first real opposition with genuine sociological roots that the AKP has ever felt. So far, the AKP’s opposition has been ideological, formulated in abstractions such as “Kemalism.” Ideological opposition had little serious sociological import for the larger masses. Since the Taksim protests have a real sociological banner, the AKP is challenged, probably for the first time. Previously, the AKP had no trouble in fending off the traditional Kemalist criticisms in the public sphere. It was a lark for the AKP to trounce the criers of vacuous abstractions such as “keep Kemalism.” The secular political arguments against the AKP in the last ten years have not touched upon any real sociological need. However, the Istanbul protesters (at least so far) are not like the traditional hurlers of insipid Kemalists mottos. Current protestors employ sociologically valid political arguments that refer to real problems that Turkish society recognizes.

And indeed, there are signs that the AKP is being challenged by the protests. For example, many conservative and liberal intellectuals and journalists, natural allies of the AKP, have voiced criticisms of the government for its disturbingly insensitive responses to the protests. For most of the last ten years, the AKP has enjoyed the legitimacy that these intellectuals and journalists gave it. The government’s immodest reaction to the protests, however, pushed most of these influential opinion-makers into critical mode. The global media have also taken a stance that is critical of the AKP for not being as tolerant of the peaceful protests as decency demands. This is unlike their erstwhile support of this democratizing party against the Kemalist status quo.


The Anatolian Reaction to the Taksim Protests


A critical issue is the social perception of the Taksim protests in Anatolian cities and villages. How will the people who live there perceive the Taksim protests ? Will they see them as another version of the Republican rallies of 2007 ? Or will they develop a different understanding ? Protests in big cities create parallel (positive or negative) reactions in Anatolian cities. For instance, the mass rallies in 2007 were strongly criticized by the larger conservative Anatolian public. Therefore, how the Anatolian public perceives the Istanbul protests will be critical in determining their impact on Turkish politics. The protesters themselves will be the main determiners of the Anatolian reaction. Certain developments can rapidly elicit a very negative reaction from the conservative masses in Anatolia. For example, if the old-fashioned Kemalist bloc hijacks the protests, that will quickly diminish the social legitimacy in Anatolia of the protests.

Paradoxically, the unorganized nature of the protests is both their strength and weakness. However, this unorganized profile will become problematic when it comes to the translation of the protesters’ demands into politics. Various well-organized and experienced groups, mainly from the traditional Kemalist circles, might want to dominate this translation process. Several labor unions’ recent offers to go on strike to support the protesters is equally risky. The protestors should protect their independent identity, for Kemalist and leftist groups’ intervention can produce a very negative reaction against them in Anatolia.


Need for an Advanced Democracy


During the last decade, Turkey has been successful in overcoming its “big” problems : The government has succeeded in tripling the Turkish GDP, and major reforms have been achieved in sectors like health and transportation. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has a big stake in this success. However, equal care should be devoted to the many lesser issues that are particularly critical in daily life. System-level reforms are indeed important, but so are the everyday practices. Thus, extensive social dialogue should precede any legislation that seeks to regulate it. The Taksim case proves that monopolistic tendencies create serious public social resentment.

Sociologically, no group can monopolize Turkish politics and society in the long term. Thus, the accelerated pace of the passing of a law, or of the adoption of any political decision, may create tensions. To prevent this, Turkish politics should develop a practice of social consultation. What Turkish President Abdullah Gül said as an early reaction to the Taksim protests should be noted as the summary of the whole process : “Democracy is not just about elections.”


Updating the Turkish Media


The blow to the secular mainstream media that the Taksim protests delivered should be noted. Unlike they did during many previous anti-government protests, this media did not broadcast the current protests in detail. The protestors’ criticism of this failure put the media chiefs into a very difficult position. Since in-group criticism (or self-criticism) is sociologically influential, many of them apologized publicly, and several editors of news channels even resigned their positions.

However, more difficult times await the Turkish mainstream secular media. On one hand, their natural social constituencies demand a more critical stance towards the AKP government. On the other, they are in complex economic relations with the government. It is not clear how the owners of the mainstream secular media companies will adapt to the new social and political setting in Turkey. The Taksim protests increased the financial and political costs of owning a TV channel or newspaper in Turkey. The balance that was created after the 2011 elections has virtually come undone.


The Social Media Risen and Derided


Turks are renowned globally for their interest in the mobile telecommunications industry. A short time before the Taksim protests, a pro-government newspaper published a promotional story about Turkey, which said that there are 67.9 million mobile phone users in Turkey, and 43.9 million of them use 3G Internet services. But, there was critical information embedded in this news : If we exclude the 0-9 year old age group, the level of mobile penetration of Turkish society is 100 percent. In other words, nearly all Turks have mobile phone access.

Less than a week after this story appeared, the Turkish premier, being interviewed about the Taksim protests, called social media “the worst menace to society.” Indeed, Erdoğan’s sentence is the symbol of a paradigmatic shift in the political meaning of “social media” in Turkey. So far, social media had played only a limited political role. It was with the Taksim protests that this media became the key channel of social and political mobilization. Like most other modern states, Turkey is weak vis-à-vis the social media, and it has no instrument to control them.

The unexpected rise of the social media is also a result of ongoing problems in the Turkish current-affairs media, which lost their previous dynamism and freedom. Several factors (government pressure, auto-censorship, media owners’ economic concerns) have transformed them into purveyors of a boring monologue. This poor performance contains one simple lesson for all governments : If the current-affairs media fail to satisfy, people quickly turn to social media.


The Political Impact


A structural fact of Turkish politics is the lack of any serious alternative to the AKP. Despite their influence, the Taksim protests are still far from changing this. It is also true that for the large conservative and democracy-demanding groups, the AKP is better than any other political party. So long as no alternate party emerges, the AKP’s remains the only political address for conservative and religious people (including social movements like the Gülen movement), their open criticism of the Erdoğan government notwithstanding.

However, political-party-oriented calculations are only one aspect of Turkish politics. Electoral calculations and expectations differ when it comes to other types of electoral behavior, like at referendums or presidential elections. Since these sorts of elections are beyond party-line divisions, the Taksim protests are likely to influence them. It is no secret that President Gül has consolidated both its public support and his hand in politics.

As sociological phenomena, the long-term political impacts of the Taksim protests are yet to be classified. The political meaning of the protests cannot be reduced to its having been a typical secular reaction : Most of the protestors do not have profiles that would associate them with supporters of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP). In brief, the protests clearly symbolize the social need for a more appropriate contemporary political order. That they have shaken the political setting in Turkey is indeed significant. Nobody is sure about their long-term impact, yet the protesters have presented us with a simple but serious question : Who will be the inspired leader who translates the contemporary social need for a more liberal and individualistic political order into an articulate political aspiration ?