Gezi Park, Democracy, and the Politics of Public Space

The Gezi Park protest movement in Turkey demonstrates some important aspects of what politics is. There is some sense in which politics is about elections, national assemblies and governments, but these things exist in a context. There cannot be politics without some broader social aspect, and that is certainly the case for democratic politics. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic early nineteenth century account, Democracy in America, he gives democracy at least two meanings. One meaning is the existence of representative institutions elected by popular voter. The more fundamental definition for Tocqueville though is the existence of equality in legal and moral status between humans. The political institutions of representative democracy are  a way of reinventing the republicanism of ancient Rome and Greece, in the context of societies which have abandoned slavery and which are more diverse than the city state of antiquity. The idea that modern democracy has some relation with ancient models, despite its major differences, has kept coming back since and was already a matter of discussion before Tocqeuville.

The kind of equality that Gezi Park protestors have been centrally concerned with is that between citizens and government members. The Turkish government has presumed that democracy is no more than the right of the elected government to do what it chooses. Significantly the Prime Minister reacted to the protests by organising rallies to Defend the National Will. In his mind the fraction of one percent under fifty per cent his Justice and Development Party received, is the National Will. Additionally the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, appears to make no distinction between his own authority and that of the party group in the National Assembly, and to believe that his actions are the actions of the National Will. The authority conferred by the National Will is what allows Erdoğan, in his mind, to order the police via government appointed governors and the Ministry of the Interior to clear political demonstrators from public spaces.

What is of major concern here is the control of public spaces and the challenges to such controls from Gezi protestors.  The protest began with resistance to government plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks containing a shopping mall and high end residences in one of the sparse green areas in central Istanbul. The government has backed down on this very specific issue, but has in all other respects reinforced its aggressively authoritarian implementation of Islamist-Nationlist politics, in a manner serving the interests of economic enterprises linked with the government through family, political or other ties. Significantly what the government has not backed down on is limiting, even banning, political protest outside  very limited areas. The protestors where cleared from Gezi Park with notorious brutality, as police sprayed tear gas and handed out beatings to anyone in their way. This extended to attacking those temporary  medical facilities where injured protestors were seeking treatment, beseiging a mosque, the Divan hotel and the German hospital. In Erdoğan’s view, this operation, and others round Turkey which resulted in the loss of five lives, the hospitalisation of thousands, including some protestors  in comas and protestors who have lost eyes, was a time of the birth of legends amongst the police.

The deaths, blindings, comas, lost eyes, and other injuries, serve the purpose of showing that the government controls public space. It is possible to organise demonstrations in Turkey, but not where it matters. The authorities will give permission in Istanbul for demonstrations in Kadıköy, the largest centre on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, which includes the remains of the ancient Greek colony of Chalcedon. It is possible for radical groups to organise large demonstrations there, but nobody cares or notices. The pro-government municipality of Istanbul is proposing a large space dedicated to demonstrations out of the city of centre. Again no one will care of notice. The national media, the international media, people found the most central parts of the city, will notice a demonstration if it takes place in a central area, which it is largely agreed has symbolic importance. A demonstration in such a place will be seen by those people most connected with the life of the city centre and maybe by the whole world through television. Even the spread of unofficial and marginal news through social media will flow towards news from such areas. Cyberspace, at least as regards political drama, is firmly focused on famous public places in historic metropolitan centres. Meaningful democracy must mean the right to demonstrate, protest and communicate with The City (as Istanbul/Constantinople has been known), the nation, and the world. In that sense ruthless state directed violence against Gezi Protestors is a strategic decision  to prevent the growth of meaningful democracy in Turkey. Without the full range of democratic rights, in the appropriate social and cultural context, democracy decays, as Tocqueville warned into ‘tyranny of the majority’, ‘administrative centralisation’ and ‘soft despotism’, which he saw as dangers embedded in democracy. The Gezi Protests are Ptotests are protests against those dangers growing and subordinating democracy.

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