A Season of Protests in Turkey T. Sabri Oncu

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the protesters in the streets of Istanbul plunderers (çapulcu) on 2 June, he contributed a new verb to the English language. A video clip of the resistance—titled “Everyday I’m chapuling”—hit the Internet on 4 June with new lyrics written on the pop song “Everyday I’m Shuffling”. And the new English verb was born: to chapul. Soon after, the word moved to the French language and found a place among such words as liberté, egalité, and fraternité: chapulité.

The international media has been covering the events of the ongoing uprising that started on 27 May extensively.

The Justice and Development (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) Party took power in 2002. A darling of Western governments and media until recently, it won three elections in a row, getting about 50% of the vote in the last election in 2011.

The party has a more than two-thirds majority in the national assembly, which allows the government to pass any law it pleases. In addition, it also controls the police force, which allows it to arrest or suppress anyone. A similar situation prevails with respect to the justice system. This enables the government to prosecute whomsoever it likes. Control over the Turkish military allows the AKP-led government to dream of regional hegemony, Ottoman style. Finally, control of all important economic and financial institutions—from the finance ministry to the Central Bank—allows the Erdogan government to shape economic policies irrespective of the needs of the population.

The AKP has been presented by the Western media not only as a democratic model for the Muslim world but also as an economic model for Europe during the ongoing global financial crisis. While the austerity-based economic model of the party has been nothing but neo-liberal speculation and finance-led growth model of development familiar to Indians, what their “Muslim democracy alla Turca” means suddenly has become clear even to The Economist, although the magazine itself introduced the concept only two years ago with high praise.

The obvious injustice and police brutality in Gezi Park was the last straw in a long process of accumulation of discontent against this authoritarian government. Through its social policies, the AKP has been pushing for a conservative Islamic lifestyle, threatening, in particular, women and youth, criminalizing and imprisoning opposition groups ranging from secular opponents to Kurds to socialists and trade unionists. And through its economic policies, the AKP has been imposing its neo-liberal agenda by increasingly commercializing public services, creating areas of rents for large corporations and eroding the living standards and security of a significant part of the working people.

The government’s growth model depends on cheap labour, speculative financial capital inflows and a high trade deficit. The share of industrial production is decreasing and is increasingly becoming dependent on imports of intermediate and capital goods as well as energy. Agricultural production is weak and even the well-liked Turkish kebabs are now grilled with imported meat from such faraway places as Argentina.

The economic miracle of the past decade has risen on two pillars. First, the fuelling of consumption through excessive credit. Second, rent extraction through privatization of the commons from land to public enterprises and natural resources. Neither of these strategies is sustainable and the unemployment rate is above 20% among the young.

Further, not only are the households significantly in debt, but so is the private sector. Although the government takes pride in having paid the last installment of debt to the International Monetary Fund, Turkey has borrowed increasingly in the international financial markets during the party’s reign, shifting the foreign debt burden from the public to the private sector. The foreign debt of the private sector has reached such unforeseen levels that Turkish corporations are now vulnerable to currency shocks that may lead to collective bankruptcies.

Although the Western media presents the ongoing protests only as a rebellion against lack of democracy, the economic and political realities are so complex that such simple labelling is misleading. There is little doubt that Turkish citizens are protesting against the lack of democracy, voice and representation. But it is also a protest against rising inequality, unemployment and the private provision of basic needs as well as against the energy, ecological and food crises.

The people in the streets come from many walks of life, age groups, religions, ethnicities and ideologies. There are anarchists on the streets, socialists, ecologists, nationalists, Kemalists, apolitical folk and even some voters of the AKP. Although the labour unions joined the protests with two strikes—the Confederation of Public Workers’ Union strike of 4 and 5 June, and the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions strike of 5 June—there is no significant participation by the Kurds yet.

It is not clear what will be the outcome of an uprising with such diversity of actors and the absence of a concrete set of demands.

Perhaps Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, in a letter to the protesters in Istanbul, answered the question best.

“Your great country stands at the gateway between East and West. Constantinople is legend in the history of civilization. Your resistance today may well be a turning point between all of us and a return to the dark ages.”

(This article was originally published in The Mint, 10 June, 2013)