A new stage in the Turkish Spring

March 6, 2014

Tom Gagné traces the connection between the aftermath of last year's Gezi Park struggle and a new upsurge of protests in the wake of a government corruption scandal.

SINCE THE end of last summer, anti-corruption protests have become a steady fixture of Turkey's political landscape--and they have escalated going into the new year, amid recent financial scandals.

At the end of last May, the struggle for Gezi Park--a small green area in the middle of the Taksim Square business district of Istanbul, slated to be bulldozed as part of an "urban renewal" project--began with a series of semi-spontaneous protests that spiraled into an occupation and ongoing demonstrations into the summer.

Like the preceding movement of the indignados ("the indignants") that took over Spain's public squares or the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., Gezi Park became a lightning rod for strong anti-government sentiment. As the upheaval spread through Istanbul and around the country, only a handful of small towns were left untouched by popular resistance.

The intense months of unrest pitted demonstrators--at first mainly young and from the left, but broadening in their social makeup--against the well-equipped police and organized pro-government forces. Like most mass social and political upheavals, the conflict was at times bloody and violent, resulting in the deaths of no less than six heroic activists. The street battles were reminiscent of Egypt--people inspired by the Gezi struggle last June talked about how spring had come to Turkey.

Democracy demonstrators fill Taksim Square at night
Democracy demonstrators fill Taksim Square at night during the Gezi Park protests

For a younger generation of Turks, the role of the state and the police became clear. The struggle became about much more than the last remaining green space in the country's economic center, raising much larger radical questions that had simmered beneath the political surface for years.

While the movement didn't achieve its most immediate aim of protecting the park, it has challenged the legitimacy of the government and the corrupt business interests behind it.

SINCE THE Gezi Park protests, formal politics in Turkey have been in a state of turmoil. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have faced global scrutiny and local unpopularity. Until recently, Turkey was viewed as an emerging economy with strong potential for growth, but a damning report by the International Monetary Fund claims the country is on an unsustainable path.

A ruling elite that previously was emboldened to press its economic and cultural exports from Casablanca to Cairo, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, now finds itself unable to regain the confidence of the population and refuses to see the crisis unfolding before it.

The AKP, a center-right party with roots in political Islamism, came to power in elections in 2001 and again in 2007. It has been successful in displacing the longstanding political supremacy of the military in Turkey, including through means of a legal crackdown. The AKP is reliably pro-free market and pro-U.S., but its populist image has become tarnished, particularly after the violence of last year.

A dramatic corruption scandal revealed late last year has made matters worse for the AKP. On December 17, officials of the Istanbul Security Directory announced the results of an investigation into financial crimes and the detention of 47 people--the total has since risen to nearly 100--including high-ranking officials in the AKP government, the sons of several cabinet ministers among them.

The investigation revealed that many AKP politicians and their cohorts have been involved in a financial triangle of gold-running between Turkey and Iran, through an intermediary between the two--the Turkish state-run bank Halk Bankası.

Turkey, unable to pay back its debt on natural gas and oil exports to Iran due to the regime of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU, resorted to the unconventional means of establishing an account for Iran through Halk Bankası. Iran, in turn, turned all these deposits into gold and transferred them back to Turkey. According to the investigation, bribes to various officials to keep things quiet added up to at least $70 million. Some $4.5 million in cash was found stored in shoeboxes in the possession of Halk Bankası's general manager, Süleyman Aslan.

The scandal is putting major strains on political alliances made during the years of the AKP's ascendency starting in 2001. In particular, the corruption scandal has played out as a battle for influence between Erdoğan and his government, and the conservative religious movement Hizmet, led by the self-exile, business-friendly Islamist scholar Fethullah Gülen.

Gülen, who has based himself in the U.S., retains a surprising amount of influence within the police, the judiciary and other social institutions in Turkey--so much so that Erdoğan has claimed that Gülen is at the center of an international conspiracy that orchestrated the exposure of corruption. What were once minor differences in an unhappy marriage between the two have become an ever-widening rift.

The AKP had fired hundreds of police officers involved in the corruption investigation. Gülen has denounced this as a purge of political opponents; Erdoğan claims the investigation itself was a "judicial coup" carried out by those jealous of his success.

The political uproar has continued. Erdoğan has threatened to expel ambassadors from countries allegedly involved in the "conspiracy," while EU authorities are claiming that the prime minister is in breach of rules regarding the country's entry into membership.

Claims of new revelations dominate the headlines, even now--including a supposed recording of a phone conversation from the day before news of the scandal broke, in which Erdoğan instructs his son to hide large sums of cash. Whether or not the recording turns out to be a fake, the political reality is that may as well be authentic.

THE SOCIAL tinderbox left behind from last spring and summer's struggles has been reignited. People are back in the streets of Istanbul and other major cities for demonstrations that denounce the government, and they are again being met by police and state violence. Clashes between protesters and police are again common in Istanbul.

One point of conflict is legislation imposing new restrictions on the Internet. Signed into law in mid-February, it gives the government the authority to block websites and censor Internet content without a judge's approval, if officials deem the communications are harmful to the "interests of the nation." Meanwhile, the government has unilaterally released suspects from the corruption investigation and moved to curb the power of the judiciary.

The main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People's Party (CHP), which faced its own tumultuous corruption scandal back in the 1990s, has called on Erdoğan to resign and leave the country.

These protests shouldn't be seen as separate from the political explosion around Gezi Park last summer, but as a new stage in the Turkish Spring. While the immediate outcome of the Gezi Park resistance appears to have been failure after two long months of protests and street fighting, the struggle has continued--and shifted along with changing political circumstances.

A new generation of Turkish people is finding its collective political voice. While the Turkish ruling class falls back on outdated xenophobia and conspiracy theories that have been effective in the past for the purpose of social control, more and more people, ranging from activists and radicals to trade unionists and beyond, are defiantly expressing an alternative.

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