Turkey’s Protests: What Really Triggered Them and Why They Will Continue

Now the protests seem to have run out of steam. Although still clashes erupt occasionally, the country is much more calmed compared to first days of the protests. Yet the reasons that sparked this social explosion off, are still there. And they need to be understood and studied intensively as they could be pregnant to even more than what already happened.


What triggered massive protests first was the police brutality that targeted peaceful protestors at Gezi Park (Which was a place hardly of national importance, let alone being worthy of global attention. Now everyone has heard of it.) To be fair, Erdoğan’s government made a lot of progress in ending torture and ill-treatment by the police, especially through passing EU reform packages. Police brutality during riots, however, remained a problem. It generally targeted protest-addicted leftist groups, sometimes labor unions and BDP (Pro-Kurdish Party), and the public, media mostly didn’t care what was happening to them. But when it happened to peaceful Gezi Park protestors who were perceived by urbanized Turkish middle class and upper middle class as their own, all hell broke loose. Angry urban youth, white-collar workers were all out in the streets. One can clearly see all this is the result of a lot of resentment accumulated over years and the attack of the police was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’d say the PM’s political language is perhaps the biggest cause of the protests, unfortunately this reason wasn’t sufficiently touched down in English-written analyses so far. The language of politics in Turkey has always been harsh and fierce. Before 2003, Erdoğan had actually promised he would change that. Indeed, in his first years, he used a more uniting language, seemed to embrace all the nation. But in his second term in office, he started to get in fights and wars of words. With who? Almost every segment of the society that didn’t support him: Diplomats, soldiers, students, academics, businessmen, doctors, journalists, labor unions, some non-governmental organizations and so on…

He makes long speeches frequently: Only in June 9, he made six speeches full of advertisement of himself, misinformation, alienation, threats and conspiracy theories. For a long time, they have been extremely unbearable for the half of Turkish voters who didn’t choose him. While presenting and talking about public investments and projects, he uses a language makes it harder to understand whether these are public investments paid by taxpayers’ money (largely by the upper middle and middle class he alienated) or his personal grants to the nation. He never avoids to call names, talk down, judge and divide people for their religious beliefs and lifestyles. Just after the big protests erupted, the country literally became a victim of this language. President Abdullah Gül, Deputy PM Bülent Arınç, İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş and Governor of İstanbul Avni Mutlu had all made very reasonable and empathetic statements. Everyone was expecting the PM to use a soft language, show a sense of empathy and soothe the people after returning from his North Africa trip. Instead, at the airport, he made one of those big stupid speeches liked by only his own base and his a few reconciliatory remarks in the speech naturally failed to calm the crowds. The protests were inflamed even more. All he had to do was to plainly apologize, or at least express regret for police brutality and say that protestors’ opinions would be taken into account. Now we face a price hard to calculate. Turkey’s one of the top ten most visited countries that uses its tourism incomes to cover its huge deficit, but the tourism sector now struggles with cancellations. Foreign direct investment and hot money flowing into Turkey are starting to have second thoughts. As the Turkish saying goes: Dilin cismi küçük, cürmü büyük. (The tongue is small but its villainy can be great.)


Another matter frustrated the crowds is that he tries to micromanage people’s lives. He tells them what to drink, when to drink, how many kids to have, what docudramas to watch, what newspapers to read, what ways are appropriate to give birth… Upper middle and middle class Turks, according to my observation, chose to ignore him for a long time. But on May 31, they decided that ignoring was not enough to cope with this mentality that blatantly tries to get into even people’s bedrooms.

Though, in all fairness, Tayyip Erdoğan is not a dictator: He won three general elections fair and square. This fact, however, doesn’t stop him from having fears of a dictator. Even though, the main goal of the protests was never overthrowing his government or questioning his legitimacy as leader, he thought he was being challenged by forces seeking to unseat him. That’s why he has been holding a series of meetings called “Respect for the National Will”, and by “the national will” he means the will of the 49% that chose him; not the others who are more crowded, probably pay more taxes than his voters do and only want their opinions to be taken into account. He responded a post-modern movement that has post-modern demands with brutally classical ways. He still perceives every bit of opposition to himself as a setback to the country’s development and democracy. He still feels no remorse, takes no responsibility for the social explosion that rocked the country. Moreover, he refuses to understand the reasons caused all this mess. And that’s why, as Americans say, it ain’t over yet. So, continue to watch Turkey.

Surely there are many more reasons and some very important ones are not directly about the government but about low standards and unskillfulness of Turkish media, incompetence of the opposition, limited options of Turkish voters and so forth. Turkey is a complex country with its unique economic and cultural dualism. Thus, every little problem is surprisingly multi-layered. I just tried to explain a few things here. I hope that I have been useful.


5 thoughts on “Turkey’s Protests: What Really Triggered Them and Why They Will Continue

  1. To properly understand the protests you should consider how they really first started. One man saw late night digging at the bottom of Gezi Park and, having some knowledge of the construction plans from a conference, realised that the works were not on plan and thus illegal. He put himself between the diggers to stop the work continuing. It took an MP to actually put a call in to suspend the illegal digging. Via one of his minions at the local council, PM Erdogan used the police to remove protesters to try and allow illegal work to continue. i.e. the protests started because of Erdogans’ authoritarian attitude and that’s what they have been about all along – an attitude he know more brazenly displays,

  2. Pingback: The Istanbul protests – XVI | Arun with a View

  3. A taxpayer revolt. The segment that pays most of the taxes and thus the transfer payments made to the less fortunate have no say in how they are governed. Add to that the rumoured plans to liquidate the big industrial holdingös and Divan Hotel may make more sense than Erdogan is prepared to admit. But then again is a ‘1789 bourgeois revolution’ possible in 2013 in a land bereft of Voltaire?

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