Istanbul: It's not the trees, or even the economy – it's the AKP

This past week, major demonstrations took place in Istanbul, at first over the redevelopment of a city park but then, following a police crackdown in the park and nearby Taksim Square, against the ruling AKP Party in general. Thousands of protestors are still in Istanbul, hundreds of cops are being sent in to contain them with tear gas and water cannons, and now solidarity protests are taking place throughout the country (as well as outside of Turkish embassies in Europe). Limited coverage by the Turkish affiliates of SKY News (SKY Turk 360) and CNN (CNN Türk) has drawn criticism, and some other Turkish outlets like NTV (which has a partnership with MSNBC) and HaberTurk also shied away from extensive coverage, with critics hinting this was due to the increasing consolation of Turkish media by pro-AKP businessmen and foreign networks’ deference to Ankara. And earlier, some - but not all - domestic newspapers began filling up with editorials discussing whether or not PM Erdogan has gone too far.

Gezi Park, formerly an Armenian cemetery that was torn down in the 1930s, is the proposed sit for a historical reconstruction of an army barracks, which like any good historical reconstruction will come with a nearby shopping mall.

For now, the protestors have won a publicity victory as a result of the police’s brutality - which unfortunately for the AKP is now being noted in context of Istanbul’s 2020 Olympics bid. Istanbul’s mayor earlier attempted to defuse the complaint about the trees’ removal by claiming that it was for renovation (and not redevelopment), but his explanation failed to convince protestors that this represented a step back from the barracks project. After all, the day after the mayor tried to pave over the complaint and subsequent court injunction against the uprooting, PM Erdogan curtly remarked to an audience “[d]o whatever you want to do, but we’ve made our decision" to redevelop Gezi Park. The PM further disparaged the protestors by claiming that AKP supporters outnumbered them ten to one and that they were agitating over a nothing more than a bunch of old trees.

PM Erdogan intoned that while people had the right to march, they did not have the right to disrupt neighborhoods. While there has been some looting and fires set among the crowds, much harm has actually been caused by the massive amounts of tear gas police used to clear the park; hotels have stocked up on lemon juice and milk to be distributed as eyewash because of the heavy gassing. Some of the dispersal canisters photographed read “Made in U.S.A.” - the US being a significant exporter of riot control gear to police forces in the region.

The language of the protests, specifically, those with Internet access, has been that of the global Occupy movement, which according to the Turkish social media researcher Zeynep Tufekci marks a departure from past protests. She notes that protests in this vein are uncommon in Turkey, where most such marches are usually organized by unions and parties: “[t]he last somewhat organic, widespread demonstrations I can remember after the 1980 coup are the ‘1989 Spring’ workers’ strikes and actions which were widespread strikes and marches, culminating in the Zonguldak mine workers strike. And those were also somewhat to completely led by the trade unions. Pretty much every other large, impactful political gathering in Turkey I know of has been organized by a traditional institutions.”

Though in the vein of Occupy and Freedom Square, this coordinated but decentralized “Occupy” movement in Istanbul began as a protest against municipal redevelopment and has now turned into a larger one against the AKP - specifically, PM Erdogan and Mayor Topbas, who sees himself as a visionary urban planner. The development element cannot be removed from the political in these protests: an architect by training, Topbas worked for the PM’s office to restorative historical buildings when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. As mayor, he has been a leading advocate of urban renewal. Under his tenure, redevelopment has increased and while several measures - such as setting up a new bus line - have been well-received, others have provoked complains that the Istanbul metro area is turning into one of “[m]ulti-billion-dollar-concrete, satellite cities.”

Redeveloping Gezi Park is like asking New Yorkers and Londoners to let their respective rezone Central Park and Hyde Park for commercial use, as one protest sign read. The 2012 Turkish documentary “Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits” assesses how Istanbul and the communities around have been reshaped as a metropolis with a burgeoning service economy, increasingly inadequate public services, and the “shopping mall mania.”

After the 1980, privatization of state enterprises and cuts to municipal budgets limited the resources available to urban planners while more and more of the city’s industrial workers stepped up from living in illegal tenements to new housing projects: those who could not afford the new housing moved further out from the city center into even more marginal tenements (more tent than concrete), while the upper middle class relocated to the forested hills above the congestion in the 1990s. The setting down of gated communities for the upper middle class and building of new bridges across the Straits drove up demand for commercial development in old industrial areas, especially for malls, prior to the global financial crisis.

Despite the slowdown in housing leasing and construction (hundreds of thousands of new apartment spaces are still vacant) traffic volume has multiplied significantly, and unlicensed building (as well as deforestation) have increased citywide - it is somewhat ironic, given the controversy over uprooting Gezi Park’s trees, the government has actually been trying to reduce deforestation caused by residential development in the hills around the city center. And when speculative leasing on high-rise condominiums proves too expensive for lower-income workers, many resign themselves to relocating and rebuilding one shantytown after another, barely a step ahead of the municipal police’s bulldozers.

So what is the significance of the Gezi Park redevelopment to the urban poor, then, those most displaced by projects like this barracks-cum-mall? Perhaps not very much - their concerns are not being addressed here, at least not in a way that is grabbing domestic political attention. For white collar workers, rising rents, higher living costs, and inadequate transportation have sparked anger, and along with a simple desire to protect a park as iconic as any other established public space in a major city, drove the initial opposition to the redevelopment project.

While the protests may raise new discussion of Turkey’s economic model and Istanbul’s development plans, the protests are now more about the conduct of the state itself, despite the fact that unlike Mubarak or Ben Ali, Erdogan was democratically elected and his party is representative of many devout, middle class voters. The park’s questionable redevelopment is now less as a symbol of AKP brusqueness, it has been superseded by photos of men and women beaten down by water cannons and riot officers.

Complaints by Turkish secularists over judicial reforms, media censorship, and corruption have further soured opposition opinion against the ruling party. What began as a protest to save the park and slow down the pace of Mayor Topbas’ urban renewal program has turned into one against a tarnished AKP brand, with members of the opposition CHP party declaring themselves allies of the protestors. Given the CHP’s somewhat moribund political program, though, it is perhaps more significant that three of Istanbul’s main football clubs have also announced they are in solidarity with the crowds. Public opinion is turning sour on all sides - those who regard the protestors as “Kemalists” and “fascists” are not without their voices in the editorial debate - in a microcosm of how far the AKP has departed from its original mandate in its opponents’ eyes, and in its own behavior.

Economically, it makes little sense to press so hard on the redevelopment: “Turkey has more mall footage than most EU countries & 28 have closed recently,” The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont notes. For the PM, who is not backing down, it may not even be much about crony capitalism, which benefits those close to him personally in the real estate and construction market (including a son-in-law).

Demonstrations have now taken place in other Turkish cities, with the Mayor of Ankara helpfully informing his Twitter followers while protesters were being tear gassed as they marched to the AKP party HQ that "we could crush you in an instant. You should pray that we believe in democracy."1 This coming from a member of a party that for years saw its voters dodging police truncheons and tear gas canisters is rather unsettling, even for some AKP supporters.

Moreso than any shady real estate deals, this sort of language from the Mayor of Ankara shows the real force driving the AKP’s furious response to what began as a hundred-person sit-in.


1 Alternatively translated as “[w]e could drown you in a spoon of water, but luckily for you we believe in democracy.” But the award for the most tone-deaf, people-who-live-in-glass-houses-shouldn’t-throw-stones response to the protests, though, must go to the Syrian government minister who reportedly said that “we advise Erdogan to quit if he is unable to control the protest.”