Anatolian Express: Back in Istanbul

Thursday, May 15, 2014

I arrived in Istanbul yesterday after a long flight from Bozeman, with stops in Chicago and Frankfurt en route. It was a good trip, and it's great to be back in the TC.

The trip was exhausting, of course, but even on the final leg I was chatting away a mile a minute with Alp, a dude I met on the plane to Istanbul. I had meant to sleep, but frankly was too excited.

It's exhilarating to be here on vacation, rather than having to work. This is the first trans-Atlantic plane ticket I've actually had to pay for myself since 1997, and I'd forgotten how liberating it can feel to actually pay your own way once in a while. Not that I'm against receiving free airfare for research, mind you.

I'm staying in Beyoglu, near Taksim, and so shortly after checking in I went to my Istanbul office, located at the Urban Bar just up the road from here. It was good to get back there, but as was the case with the last time I was there, things got a bit gassy.

Tear gassy, that is. Yep, it's starting to look like another summer of protest in Turkey, or at least in Istanbul. I'd been wondering about this lately, and mentioned in my post about this year's May Day mayhem that May 1 seemed like it was almost being considered a litmus test of sorts by the authorities regarding the level of protest they were going to see this year.
May Day in Istanbul, 2014

Things don't appear to be ending anytime soon. At the same time, my sense is that the people protesting this year will be more hardened, and perhaps a bit more willing to fight back compared to last year.

Yesterday gave us another taste of what might be coming this summer. The instigation for this was Tuesday's mine disaster in Soma, for which the death toll is currently at 282 and is expected to climb even higher.

In Turkey now, everything is politicized, including this mine disaster.
While the dead were still being identified in Soma, there were protests in Istanbul yesterday against the ruling AK Party. As I headed over to the Urban, I saw rows of cops hanging around near the Galatasaray high school as row after row of marchers--probably a few hundred in all--walked down Istiklal Caddesi chanting slogans against Prime Minister Erdogan, the AK Party, and the capitalist and non-regulatory system that the marchers blamed for the Soma disaster.
"It's not an accident or fate. The AKP is responsible for the massacre of workers."

The results were predictable. Lots of chants and slogans, followed by the crack of tear gas being fired. Much coughing and tearing ensued. By 10:30 or so, it was over.

Compared to last year, when most protesters were just wearing flip-flops and light clothes in the early weeks of Gezi, the protesters today are a lot better outfitted. The modifications in response to police tactics came early. At first, protesters jury-rigged gas masks out of plastic water bottles and damp napkins, but now many wear hard-hats, real gas masks, and clothes that are better suited for police attacks.

It's become fashionable, of course, to denounce Erdogan as authoritarian, and I've criticized his approach to the protesters plenty on this blog. At the same time, I find it amazing how few people seem to remember the fact that tactics like this existed long before Erdogan. Kemalists and others who despise the AKP seem to think that the government in Turkey never attacked protesters before. In fact, this has been the case in Turkey for a long time, and especially since the adoption of the Constitution of 1982, which actually permits most of the hijinx that Erdogan indulges in.

The difference is that most of the people in the streets today--or at least last year, during Gezi--were not the targets of government abuse of protesters in the past. This is because the Kemalists were generally not the ones protesting in the past. For years, it was apparently okay for police to attack protesters viciously in Diyarbakir and elsewhere in southern eastern Turkey, places where the AKP is really popular right now and where there were virtually no protests last summer.

While a lot of Kemalists--including many of the people protesting in Gezi last summer--were cool with Kurds, leftists and religious types (including Erdogan himself) getting sent to prison and otherwise stifled in the 1990s, now they've finally come around to thinking that it's a bad idea for political opposition to be oppressed. Guess what? This epiphany occurred once the Kemalists found themselves in opposition.

Yeah, I know--some people say that the Gezi protesters weren't Kemalists. But this view represents a pretty narrow view of Kemalism. Sure, these kids on the streets last year were not the Kemalists of their parents' generation. They have more flexible views about the state, and are at least hip enough in most cases to realize that Turkey needs to do more to solve its problems than turn back the clock to the 1930s.

At the same time, however, the Gezi protesters were people who had never sympathized with the AKP or Erdogan. Even if they were different from their parents, they had similar political objectives--oust Erdogan by whatever means possible. Whereas their parents' generation looked to the Army to get rid of groupings like the AKP, the Gezi protesters looked to people power. Until the rude awakening of this year's nationwide municipal elections, which resulted in yet another big AKP victory, a lot of the Gezi protesters probably didn't even realize the degree to which they really are in a minority.

I think they're starting to get the message now. There will be presidential elections later this year, with an excellent chance that Tayyip Erdogan will become president of the country. Coming to terms with the fact that the largest group of voters actually supports Erdogan is proving a enduringly painful and difficult process for the opposition. 

My prediction for this summer is that we'll see more protests, but that they'll be smaller and, possibly, more violent than last year. A lot of the Gezi-groupies from last year, I imagine, will stay out of the streets this summer. The ones that do go out, I think, will be more in the mood for physical confrontation.

No matter what happens, the anti-AKP opposition is really stuck. Erdogan is a lot smarter and more ruthless than most of his predecessors, and he has managed to stay popular despite fighting a war on two fronts with the Kemalists and his former allies in the Gulen brotherhood. Despite Erdogan's bizarre need to constantly wage wars against a rotating list of adversaries, the Prime Minister has benefited from a truly incompetent political opposition in the form of the CHP and MHP parties, both of which continue to show that they have no clue regarding the ways in which the country's body politic has changed over the past decade. Those two parties act as if it were still 1995, when in fact they are living in an era in which no one is left to bail them out--not the Army, not the judiciary, or any of the other levers that the Kemalist parties used to suppress political dissent back when they were still running the show here.

The only way that Turkey will get beyond Erdogan will come from making their own parties more wide-open. Tone-deaf moves--like making Mustafa Sarigul, of all people, the CHP candidate for Istanbul mayor during a campaign in which corruption was set to be a major issue--will doom the CHP to opposition status until they either luck their way into finding a competent leader or find a way to fundamentally change the manner in which they choose their standard-bearer.

With no political road-map ahead of them, this summer's children of Gezi will, I think, be a lot less fun-loving than last year's version.

In any case, it's time I went out and had a little fun. I'm only in Istanbul for a few days before moving on to the real goal of this trip: re-familiarizing myself with Anatolia. Turkey, like most countries, is a lot nicer than its politics. It's great to be back in the position of receiving daily reminders of why I love being here. 

Also see:

May Day Mayhem in Taksim

Ergenekon Trial posts

İsyanbol: Gezi Park Notes

More links, commentary and other stuff can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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