Omar Salha argues that the Turkish protests that started in Gezi Park, Istanbul, give the opportunity for a new chapter for democracy in the country to emerge.
In September 2012 not one single representative at the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Assembly voted against the ‘Taksim Project’ in Gezi Park. The vote was unanimous. The AKP government and the CHP opposition agreed with the destruction of the public park in Taksim.
The initial protest in Turkey did not represent a political entity, did not represent a religious/cultural group and did not seek a political revolution. The protest was about Istanbulites (and in the broader context, the Turkish people) being able to hold discussions on future projects in public hearings and the ability to advocate and influence policy decisions. This includes not undermining the voice of citizens and highlighting the lack of transparency behind decisions affecting the people, being able to participate in civil society consultations, and feeling inclusive, involved and part of a wider decision-making process. All of this whilst reclaiming the public legitimacy of politics and a dialogic pluralist participatory democracy, promoting social diversity at the heart of government institutions.
The manner in which the government and the police managed the initial protest on urban planning and what followed after triggered a larger burst of anger, discontent and frustration from various political and social groups across all ages and walks of life. The complete failure of Turkish opposition parties to be a voice, a medium and platform for a considerable group of the population led them to protest – the main opposition CHP decided to join later, a move sought to capitalise on the civil unrest. This was the only way to affirm their voice in ‘street politics’ after being excluded and under-represented in electoral party politics. (‘#GeziPark’ one of the largest public protests in Turkey).
This experiment we are witnessing today seeks to encourage and advocate the knowledge, passion, dignity and commitment of citizens in order to change from a tokenistic perception to a more collective influential and important civil society actor.
Amidst all the name-calling, subjective theories, never ending opinions (here is another to add), the accusations (both the outrageous and humorous), ambitious analyses, international commentaries, talk of the ‘Turkish Spring’, academic gossip papers on the ‘Turkish Model’ for the Arab region and ‘revolution’; we are witnessing the basic reality of Turkey’s civil democratic progression. Just as we saw in the US with the Occupy Wall Street movement, London protests which stretched across the UK and the Swedish protests – the people’s right to protest and criticise without the interference of the military, political entities/parties and institutions signifies this progression in Turkey simultaneously with free and fair elections. Notice how the media coverage and rhetoric in London, Stockholm and Paris used the word ‘riots’ vis-a-vis ‘protest’ in Istanbul.
An opportunity to reconcile the relationship between politicians and citizens for an open and honest discourse has come alive – as aspired to in every dignified democracy. The fact that public demand and pressure in Turkey in recent events has led the AKP government to reconsider the ‘Taksim Project’, apologise for police brutality, hold police commissioners and governors accountable, initiate peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), lift the headscarf ban at universities, schools, hospitals and other government institutions, winning three consecutive terms in office with an overall majority reflects a key and significant point.
A poll by Bilgi University among 3,000 protesters in Taksim Square found – stepping out of the shadows – some 53% have never joined a protest before, 70% do not feel close to any opposition party, 92% do not identify themselves as AKP voters and 81% identify themselves as a ‘freedom promoter’. Although there is a lack of representation at the local governance level, this may very well witness the potential for a new political party emerging as the study alludes to, and/or a conciliatory strategy thus taking a step closer to a functioning participatory pluralist democracy.
It is the people themselves who give and take back power entrusted in the politicians and rightfully honour the will of the nation with wisdom, consciousness and mutual respect. This is a new chapter for Turkish Democracy.
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