Triumph in Taksim Square?

The Rebirth of Turkey's Opposition

Anti-government protesters wave flags during a protest in central Ankara June 11, 2013. (Davo Ruvic / Courtesy Reuters)

When Turkish police attacked a small sit-in to save a park on May 28, Turkey was swept up in a nationwide upheaval that may have changed the country’s politics forever. The ongoing government crackdown only seems to have strengthen protestors’ resolve to usher in a new age.

Many Turkish government officials and international observers have framed the sit-in as a clash between secularism and religion. But most protestors do not have strong ideological convictions (religious or otherwise) or political track records -- that much, at least, is evident in their use of football chants for slogans. And those protesters that do have political affiliations are diverse: quite a few supporters of the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have even shown up.

It was the authorities’ heavy-handed reaction to the Gezi Park protests -- and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dismissive and insulting statements -- that really brought this motley collection of discontents together. In a moment, the movement became more Arab Spring than Occupy Wall Street: the government tried to criminalize the protestors, used tear gas and water cannons against them, and arrested thousands. More than anything, the shared experience of repression, combined with collective frustration at mounting top-down efforts to regulate public life, despite Turkey’s highly diverse ethnic and religious makeup, brought citizens from different walks of life together.

That fellow feeling -- even if it is fleeting -- is new. Traditionally, opposition parties in Turkey had based their platforms on ideology. That is, broad concepts such as secularism or national identity. The Republican People’s Party, for example, has long promoted a rigid interpretation of Atatürkist principles not only alienating more liberal voters, who see it as an old guard that is out of touch with modern Turkey, but also paralyzing the efforts of reformists to push a bona fide social democrat agenda. The Gezi Park protests demonstrated the value of looking beyond ideology toward shared problems and toward protecting the right to make one’s own choices.

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