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Turkey protesters put signs down, start talking strategy

Aware that the effectiveness of their protests is waning, Turkey’s antigovernment protesters are now focusing on giving their movement staying power beyond Istanbul.

It’s almost midnight, but the outdoor amphitheater at a small park in Istanbul is packed to capacity, with small groups crowded around outside. They’ve gathered for what amounts to an open mic opposition planning meeting, with people taking the stage to share ideas about what’s next for Turkey’s anti-government protesters.

At parks throughout the city, thousands are now gathering to discuss how to turn their demonstrations into the beginnings of a democratic movement capable of making an impact at the ballot box.

When demonstrators began massing three weeks ago, often clashing with police, most of those involved voiced their frustration with the current government, especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They called for changes like the resignation of the prime minister or an end to police brutality, but offered little in the way of a clear pathway to an alternative government. Now they hope to turn their discontent into a clear, organized political platform.

“It’s a model for participatory democracy,” says Ilken Cayla, a political science graduate student. The meetings have just started, so they have yet to create a concrete agenda. “There is no organization yet, people are just discussing what they want,” he explains. 

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Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, has managed to gain a firm grip on politics in recent years in large part because there are no organized opposition parties to effectively challenge it in elections. The next largest party is half its size and AKP’s rivals share few common political aims beyond defeating Erdogan’s party in elections.

In the country’s last election in 2011, AKP dominated, winning 50 percent of the vote. Erdogan views this victory as a mandate and has been accused of uncompromisingly pursuing policies that disregard the views of the other half of the country.

In this environment, opposition groups have begun looking for ways to eat into AKP’s support base.

“We need to do something about the next election, that’s obvious, but how we’re going to do it is not clear,” says Alican Torun, a business administration and advertising student who stayed out at the meeting in the park until after midnight even though he had a final exam at 9:00 the next morning. “What we are doing here is much more important. Even my mother wants me to be here right now,” he says.

The meetings have yet to produce a clear agenda, but several ideas have begun gaining traction.

Though protests have been nationwide, so far they have appealed largely to middle class, secular Turks in cities. Rather than continuing to focus their efforts on urban areas, which activists say are at risk of becoming echo chambers, many now advocate for spreading awareness for their political agenda in the countryside where people tend to be more conservative and less likely to seek out new information.

“Maybe these people [here in the park] can go to the rural areas,” says Onur, a recent college graduate who declined to give his last name. “In rural areas people can learn only from TV and the TV doesn’t say bad things about the prime minister.”

The Turkish media has been sharply criticized for its failure to report on protests or only providing scant coverage. During violent clashes in the first several days of the protests, CNN Turk, the local version of CNN, broadcast a documentary about penguins and other unrelated programming. Most other news outlets in Turkey showed a similar reluctance to provide coverage of the nationwide demonstrations.

Among other ideas, those at the park have also discussed lobbying for changes to the country’s election law that could create a more level playing field or uniting smaller opposition parties behind the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the next largest political party after AKP.

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The lack of a strong leader who stands out as a clear rival to Erdogan or a party capable of becoming an umbrella group for the patchwork of opposition groups remain central problems for activists.

Emre, a book vender who declined to give his last name, says he’d like to see more people fall behind CHP, but as someone who voted for the party in the last election he admits that others may not agree with the party’s politics.

“[CHP] is not for all the people, it has some nationalist views and it did not tolerate the Kurds until recently,” he says.

Even without a clear plan for the future, most of those at the park remain optimistic. They say that they’ve only just started their movement and the next elections aren’t until March 2014. Many people are also quick to point out that as recently as last month no one was even talking about politics or ways to change the government, so public dialogue alone is an improvement.

Still, some activists worry that these new political movements may lose steam as mass protests are replaced by political planning meetings and technical debates about democracy.

“I’m a little pessimistic about it. I think less and less people will come and then it will finish somehow,” says Varlik Indere, a city planner. “Next year maybe no one will come.”