Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spent yesterday talking. On Saturday, the authorities relented and withdrew the police from Taksim Square, when it became clear that serious clashes would be unavoidable. Crowds were approaching from four different directions and the police were trying to stop them before they reached the square, but they kept coming; at around 4 p.m. news came that the police were pulling back. Many thought that this might be tactical. In the end, however, the demonstrators had Taksim to themselves. On Sunday morning, under a drizzle, they peacefully cleaned up the square while Erdoğan made the rounds, denouncing the extremists, justifying his actions and defiantly repeating his commitment to overhaul the social and physical space of the meydan.
Taksim Square has been symbolic of Turkey’s Western aspirations: it is the centre of the European section of the city, adorned with a monument to the founders of the Republic where official ceremonies are held and officials lay wreaths. Trade unions and leftist organisations want to celebrate May Day there but the authorities have denied them the privilege more often than not. In truth, the symbolic value of Taksim far exceeds its aesthetic rewards: it is the busiest square in the city, but the buildings around it are an eclectic mix with no historical or architectural distinction; the park that the crowds are defending is not heavily used.
But this is not the point: the worry is that the Islamist neoliberal party that Erdoğan leads, the AKP, is rapidly becoming more Islamist and posing a real threat to secular urban middle-class lifestyles. Erdoğan’s increasingly imperious inclination aggravates the anxiety. His insistence on involving Turkey in Syria’s civil war was thought to be motivated by his Sunnism, and there was widespread fear that the country would get too involved in the Middle East – a fear vindicated in the explosions and loss of life on the border. The new legislation regulating the sale of alcohol was interpreted as a first step towards more serious restrictions, with some columnists speculating about the emergence of a regime, as in the Gulf, under which alcohol could be consumed only in tourist hotels. A young couple in Ankara’s metro were admonished for kissing over the PA system; people who protested against this policing of behaviour were physically attacked by conservative militants. Then the PM announced that the third bridge over the Bosphorus will be named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Ottoman sultan who ordered the massacre of 40,000 Alevis in the 16th century. Alevis, whom Sunnis have always regarded as unbelievers, make up between 10 and 15 per cent of Turkey’s population and it would be safe to guess that Erdoğan receives a negligible percentage of their votes. His supporters in the media tried to reassure the public that there was no nasty intention in the naming of the bridge, but Erdoğan did not bother to explain his supposed oversight. All this added to the sense of a growing Islamic authoritarianism bound to trample the secular ‘way of life’.
The ‘removal’ of trees in Gezi Park at first attracted a relatively small group of protesters, who saw it as a first step in Erdoğan’s plan to redesign Taksim. The police brutally gassed and beat up the few hundred people there, and the frustrations and fears of the much larger group worried about the increasingly authoritarian agenda of the PM found a channel of expression. Over the course of less than a week the crowd swelled to a million. On Saturday the crowds pouring in to the centre were mostly young and middle-class. University students dominated. In a city whose population has doubled in the last 25 years because of rural migration, they looked to be at least second-generation urban. I would be surprised if there were more than a handful of AKP voters among them.
Erdoğan always talks in the first person singular: they are his government, his project, his ministers and his people. In Taksim he wants to reconstruct a 19th-century army barracks, occupying roughly the same space as Gezi Park, which was demolished in the 1930s. He announced yesterday that the reconstructed building should be a hotel, because Istanbul’s success as a world city has led to a huge increase in the number of tourists and business travellers and there is a shortage of luxury hotels. There will also be some shops to cater to visitors. In other words, an appropriation of public space for business ends.
The Ottoman state was the ‘owner’ of all land that was not recognised as private; but this meant trusteeship, not alienable property. The neoliberal AKP, however, is all too happy to privatise public assets: displacing the inhabitants of shantytowns to make land available to developers; selling public land in Istanbul to construction firms to build middle-class housing; and now dispossessing the public of their trees and parks to build a private space for the global rich. Erdoğan thinks of public land as his property to alienate, develop and sell. Thus the two agendas intersect: on the one hand, Taksim Square will be transformed, bearing the stamp no longer of the westernising Republic but of an Islamic government harking back to Ottoman times. On the other, public space will be privatised in the true neoliberal manner. All this was justified yesterday within a retro developmentalist discourse: these doings were imperatives of economic growth, not the result of political decisions. After all, the PM said, wasn’t the economy doing well. This kind of thinking leaves no room for public discussion.
In his speeches yesterday and in a two-hour interview with a sympathetic anchorman, Erdoğan blamed ‘ideological’ agendas and the main opposition party for the demonstrations, said that ‘extremists’ and ‘a few marauders’ had radicalised the public, and threatened that if he had to, he could easily call his supporters onto the streets in greater numbers. Besides, he was the better environmentalist: he would be planting more trees than were removed (counting those that would be sequestered in the courtyard of the reconstructed barracks). The leitmotif was that he had the numbers. He defined his understanding of democracy as going to the polls every four years: everyone had to accept the verdict. Since his people had voted him in, he would serve them. Everyone had to respect the results and not object to the decisions of his legitimate government. Besides, how could anyone accuse him of not working for the good of his people. This principle held for public morality as well: people should respect the way of life of the majority and behave accordingly.
It is an almost perfect set-up. AKP has the numbers, and the owners of the media have to do business with the government. Newspapers and TV stations ignored the demonstrations until yesterday. There are a few critical columnists left; many have lost their jobs. There is no independent bourgeoisie: business cannot be conducted without the good will of the government. And, it has to be admitted, Erdoğan is a consummate politician. He does not delegate, he has full control of his party and all that the government does. There is no opposition politician who comes close to his monstrous appetite for politicking. The so-called social media and the brand of politics that characterises the younger generation, however, are a novel presence in the Turkish arena. This week will tell us more about their potential.