Turkey has been witnessing one of the most vibrant and creative protests in its history since a group of protestors were subjected to brutal police violence a month ago in Gezi Park, Istanbul. Primarily started as a reaction against the urban regeneration of Gezi Park, protests then proliferated in other parts of Istanbul and other cities, articulating diverse grievances of citizens against the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) culturally conservative and economically neoliberal authoritarianism, especially in opposition to increased police violence against protestors all around the country.
A recent article in Al Jazeera titled “Taksim Square Is Not Tahrir Square” by Ali Murat Yel and Alparslan Nas, however, shows us how some intellectuals in Turkey portray the current protests as just an elitist reaction against the AKP, by passing off the party as the sole representative of the citizens at the margins of society. Using the now outmoded center-periphery analysis, they suggest that the AKP still represents the periphery of Turkey. According to this analysis, the AKP’s accession to power signified the real democratic revolution in Turkey. In this analysis, the “periphery” implies many things at the same time: citizens residing in cities other than metropolitan cities of Turkey, namely Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir; citizens in favor of broader religious freedoms; and finally poor citizens. For Yel and Nas, the AKP is the voice of all of these groups, while the protestors are composed of those calling for establishment of a minority rule over the majority. The authors base their analysis on a questionable representation of the majority defined by their supposed cultural values. Confined to this position, they argue that the AKP has been representing the cultural values of the conservative, Sunni majority.
However, there are many ways of defining a majority based on other criteria, as well as there exist many centers and peripheries within any society. For instance, Roma people who were forced to leave Sulukule located at the center of Istanbul, for the sake of urban regeneration benefitting property developers, can be categorized within an imagined Sunni Muslim majority, but they may well be regarded as part of the social-class-defined majority who do not have access to benefits of economic growth in the neoliberal age. The same exercise can be done for the AKP. On the basis of conservative cultural values, the AKP may appear as the representative of the majority. However, on the basis of the distribution of economic benefits in Turkish society, the AKP is the representative of the new elite class.
The AKP has been in office since 2002. Yes, the AKP government has generally secured steady economic growth. But, where did the benefits of this growth go? Turkey ranks 66th in the world in the GDP per capita ranking, and yet it still ranks 90th in the Human Development Index. Income inequality is increasing in Turkey, too. What this reveals is that the AKP government’s economic growth has been largely unevenly distributed. Thanks to this uneven distribution, the AKP-favored new bourgeoisie has firmly established itself. Massive dispossessions based on urban and rural restructuring through various mega construction projects as well as ongoing commodification in the areas of health care and education have enriched the AKP-favored new bourgeoisie and worked against the welfare of the majority.
Contrary to the democratic promises of the AKP, the ongoing uprising demonstrates that the problem of the AKP rule is not only its uneven economic growth but also its increasing authoritarian tendencies with respect to civil rights issues. The AKP government has adopted a repressive and intolerant stance toward opposing voices. This uprising, however, is unprecedented in that for the first time all of the different fractions of the opposition bloc have unified to express their grievances against the AKP rule. The government’s brutal response to the protestors can be better understood as a response to the challenge posed by this tactical unification of the opposition.
Nevertheless, the opposition bloc remains politically quite heterogeneous. It is totally fallacious to assume that the protestors are predominantly ultra-nationalists who are against the democratization of the country. This portrayal misses the fact that there have been protests in more than 40 different cities, organized by diverse social groups, and the protest agendas of those different cities and social groups within them vary greatly. The violent clashes in Hatay, a province neighboring Syria, points to people’s growing opposition to the AKP’s policy on the Syrian conflict. The middle class anger against the AKP’s attempts to infringe on secular ways of life is represented in various enclaves of Ankara, Izmir, and İstanbul. Alevis express their grievances about the assimilationist policies. Socialist groups march against the ongoing neoliberal transformation of the country. Feminist groups protest against the conservative policies that reduce women’s lives to “mothers of at least 3 children.” All these diverse grievances have been articulated into a common discourse that calls for a pluralist democracy rather than one that is based on majoritarian authoritarian rule.
Imagining a majority and attempting to consolidate that majority is a political act. The AKP is clearly working to sustain its parliamentary majority based on conservative values and continue its neoliberal experiment. The protestors have been taking an alternative route. The majority they seek to represent seems to be a much more peaceful and pluralist one, which might well be a more socially just one as well.
Mehmet Baki Deniz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, USA. Volkan Yılmaz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics & International Studies at the University of Leeds, UK.