“My dear prime minister, I was an apolitical man; then how come I took to the streets? Not for two trees. I rebelled after seeing how, early at dawn, you have attacked those youngsters who were silently protesting in their tents. I took to the streets because I do not wish my son to go through the same things and I would like him to live in a democratic country,” wrote one of the protesters in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square.
This poignant letter, addressing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely circulated on Turkey’s social media.
That the owner of these words, Cem Batu, is the creative director of an advertising agency, and he and his team of well-educated, modern, young Istanbulites have been subjected to tear gas and injury during the protests says a lot about the ordeal of these last days.
It all started as a peaceful sit-in to save one of the last remaining public parks in a city of almost 14 million people.
The government has been adamant about razing the park to rebuild the old Ottoman military barracks that once stood there and to then turn it into a museum or a mall. It was a decision that was made too fast and without proper public and media debate.
Many people, who would opt for a public garden over a shopping mall, felt their voices were not heard by the politicians. Of these, some have ended up occupying Gezi Park. At the same time, the hashtag occupygezi was launched, calling out for support and solidarity.
As Koray Caliskan, a political scientist from the Bosphorus University, wrote in the daily Radikal newspaper, these early protesters came from diverse ideological backgrounds, and among them were even people who had voted in the past for the party in power, the Justice and Development party (AKP).
The harshness of the police treatment of those who occupied Gezi Park changed everything. The protesters’ tents were raided and set on fire. A university student underwent surgery after receiving blows to his genitals. Sirri Sureyya Onder, an MP from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP), was hospitalized after being reportedly hit by a tear gas cartridge, and many others received head and body injuries.
Images of armed officers using pressurized water, pepper spray and tear gas against unarmed youngsters sparked a widespread reaction, creating an unprecedented backlash against the government and unleashing old resentments.
Protests flared up in 60 cities, including the capital, Ankara. Rapidly, the Taksim demonstrations snowballed into something beyond Istanbul, and bigger than the protection of a public park.
Three structural problems have contributed to the escalation of the tension. First, Turkey lacks a solid, sophisticated opposition party. This remains a fundamental deficiency, as people do not have alternative political venues to channel their views and frustrations. That which cannot be expressed accumulates and seethes inside, only to erupt where and when it can.
Second, while the main opposition party, the Republican People’s party (CHP), has been visibly melting, the government has been gaining too much power and authority. Lack of meritocracy and transparency diminishes people’s trust in the political regime. Recent policies, such as the restriction of alcohol sales and an announcement on the subway in Ankara warning passengers against kissing in public, have triggered fears that the government is interfering in its citizens’ lifestyles and trying to shape society top-down.