Turkey’s Gezi Park Demonstrations of 2013: A Marxian Analysis of the Political Moment

Efe Can Gürcan and Efe

On 31 May 2013, a localized demonstration against the destruction of a public park at the heart of Istanbul (Gezi Park) spiraled into a nationwide anti-government protest cycle of unprecedented form and scale in Turkey’s modern history. Before dawn that day, the police stormed into the park to violently disperse the few hundred protesters who had been occupying the space to prevent its destruction as part of a municipal urban renewal project. By the day’s end, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country were out in the streets in a spontaneous collective response to what they perceived as the rising authoritarianism and conservatism of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP). A modest urban park thus turned into a bastion and symbol of resistance against the increasingly authoritarian and interventionist rule of the AKP and Prime Minister (PM) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many observers refer to these events as the “Turkish Summer,” a term we use here interchangeably with the “June uprising” or “Gezi Events.”

The abrupt and spontaneous nature of the protests cannot be overemphasized. No specialist on Turkey could envisage a collective mobilization of such magnitude and versatility until the very moment it erupted. As the earthmovers started demolishing Gezi Park at 23:30 on Monday 27 May, nothing was out of the ordinary: it was just another urban redevelopment project with relatively little public concern outside of the Taksim region. The first tweet calling people to action for the cause of Gezi Park was tweeted at 23:47; yet the person who wrote it could not have known that this would be the first of millions to come in the following two weeks. On 28 May, more and more people moved into the Park with tents, books, and guitars, slowly turning it into a festival area despite the presence of bulldozers and the intermittent police attacks. The symbolic photo of “the lady in red” frantically tear-gassed by a police officer was taken that day, which was also when the socialist Member of Parliament (MP) Sırrı Süreyya Önder stood in front of the earthmovers to support the protesters. On May 29, celebrating the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453, PM Erdoğan spoke in the grandiose opening ceremony of the city’s third bridge: “Do whatever you want in Gezi Park. We have made our decision.” Police began burning the protesters’ tents in the morning of Thursday May 30. Yet instead of causing intimidation, police violence ironically brought in larger groups of protesters to the Park as the weekend approached, along with raising awareness and agitation across the country. Finally, all hell broke loose on Friday evening, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets.

Nationwide figures are indicative of the Gezi Park Events’ significance as an exceptional protest cycle in Turkey’s history. In the course of a few weeks, over 2.5 million people – labeled “a handful of marauders” by the PM – filled the streets and occupied public places in 79 cities, where police violence caused more than 7,500 injuries and 5 deaths among the protesters. The police sprayed 3,000 tons of water and fired 150,000 gas bombs at the people. In addition to the deaths, 3 people remained in critical condition, 63 were severely injured, 106 suffered from severe head traumas, and 11 people lost an eye. 13.5 million tweets were shared with the supportive tags “direngeziparki, occupygezi, direnankara, direntaksim and direngezi” (“diren” means “resist” in Turkish).

The aim of this paper is to provide a systematic understanding of the political opportunities that led to the Gezi Park Events. Our time frame is confined to June 2013, from the eruption of the demonstrations through the unrest that followed the recapture of Gezi Park by the police. This time frame represents the peak of the protest cycle, which partially reinvigorated in the fall. It is important to emphasize we do not aim to provide an overall analysis of the Gezi Events, but rather to tease out the particular ways in which political opportunities contribute to social mobilization.

Political opportunity structures refer to social processes or events such as wars, industrialization, international political realignments, prolonged unemployment and widespread demographic changes, which accumulate social grievances that enable the necessary environment and material conditions for collective action over a longer period of time (McAdam 1982: 40-41). One could also add to those factors the openness or closure of the political system, the presence/absence and (in)stability of elite alliances, and the state’s capacity and propensity for repression (McAdam et al. 2008: 10; see also Kriesi 1995).

We argue that three sets of opportunity structures have been crucial in the emergence and development of social mobilization in the Gezi events: 1) what we call the “political-cultural fix” (PCF) of the AKP government, 2) political regime/state capacity dynamics in Turkey, and 3) international realignments that influenced Turkish politics. We analyze these three moments through a combination of what we call “systemic” and “conjunctural” opportunity structures, which refer, respectively to long-term/structural and short-term/instance-driven developments. We assess the long-term effects of neoliberalism with Turkish-Islamic characteristics through the lens of neoliberal “spatial fix.” We suggest supplementing David Harvey’s notion of “spatial fix” with what we call the “political-cultural fix” (PCF) in order to underline capitalism’s need to rely on the political-cultural readjustment of society in parallel with neoliberal adjustment of the economy. PCF entails the transformation of a nation’s “memory” through spatial reconstruction and re-symbolization. In the medium and long run, however, the readjustments advanced under PCF tend to generate social discontent, creating an opportunity for social mobilization.

In the first part of the paper we analyze the spatial opportunities for the Gezi Events, which were generated by the Islamic-neoliberal PCF in Turkey. We explore the Turkish PCF within the context of what we call the “social interventionism” of the AKP government as a vehicle for the spatial expansion of Islamic-neoliberal social engineering projects. Following Charles Tilly and Sydney Tarrow’s (2004) elaboration on the role of state capacity and political regimes in shaping political opportunity structures, the second section examines the evolution of the Turkish state under the AKP government towards a “high-capacity undemocratic regime.” In turn, the final section discusses the role of Turkey’s opaque and unaccountable foreign policy on Syria in creating a social distress that contributed to social mobilization prior to the Gezi Park Events. In all these sections, we argue that the grievances of Gezi protesters are best articulated in their slogans, as one of the most striking particularities of the Gezi Events was the use of what came to be known as “orantısız zeka” [disproportianate intelligence], i.e. creative and humorous slogans, tweets, music, graffiti, and other forms of street artwork. Therefore, we also trace the link between the underlying political opportunities of the Gezi protests and their various manifestations in the slogans that were used during the events. 

  1. Political-Cultural Fix and Spatial Opportunities for Social Mobilization

As briefly discussed in the introduction, we discern two types of political opportunity structures that set the background for the Gezi Park Events. The first pertains to long-term political opportunities of a structural nature, whose impact is implicit and indirect. The second applies to event-related opportunities that directly and explicitly ignite social mobilization.

Structural factors in Turkey include the rise of a neoliberal conservative political party, which consolidated its power by advancing socially interventionist policies over the past 12 years. As Yaşlı asserts (2013: 9), the AKP government is a by-product of the crisis of neoliberal hegemony in Turkey following the economic crisis of 2001. Yaşlı goes on to argue that the AKP government served not only to advance neoliberalism but also to create the necessary conditions for its hegemonic expansion based on Islamic conservatism. Nonetheless, the Gezi Park Events represent a hegemonic crisis of the AKP government itself, in the context of developments such as growing friction between Erdoğan's supporters and those of Fethullah Gülen (an influential Islamic opinion leader) in the state apparatus, as well as the adventurist foreign policy of the AKP government aggravated by the crisis in Syria (Yaşlı 2013).

What we call “social interventionism” refers to AKP’s efforts to establish political and ideological domination along Islamic lines via the diffusion and imposition of a conservative-neoliberal weltanschauung in all state institutions and segments of civil society (Birkiye 2009). We understand neoliberalism as primarily a political project to reconstitute the conditions for capital accumulation and to reinstate the power of economic elites (Harvey 2005: 19). In the particular case of Turkey, AKP’s neoliberalism can be seen “as an example of how … political Islam adjusted to neoliberal restructuring project within the process of globalization” marked by a strong “articulation of identity-based feelings of exclusion for different political projects” (Bedirhanoğlu & Yalman 2010: 110-12). The bourgeois-Islamic reorganization of political and civil society under the AKP government serves to refashion Turkish society in line with market logic by legitimizing neoliberalism (Blad & Koçer 2012, Tuğal 2011).

Although the drive for universality is inherent in capitalism, one should not lose sight of the fact that each effort to ensure capitalism’s cohesion, expansion and sustainability relies on geographical and cultural particularities of a given space. In this respect, David Harvey’s theorization of “spatial fix” underlines that the crisis-prone internal contradictions of capitalism can only be “solved,” or rather deferred, through the geographical expansion of capital to produce and commodify new spaces (Harvey 2003). The term “fix” has a double meaning in this context. On the one hand, “fix” means “a certain portion of … capital is literally fixed in and on the land in some physical form” to open up new areas for investment. On the other hand, “fix” is “a metaphor for a particular kind of solution to capitalist crises through temporal deferral and geographical expansion” (Harvey 2003: 115). Harvey goes on to assert that spatial fix is both economic and political, in that “building a new landscape … accommodate[s] both the endless accumulation of capital and the endless accumulation of political power” (135).

The application of urban neoliberalism under AKP speaks directly to Harvey’s theorization of “spatial fix.” One of the main pillars of AKP government in the last decade has been the massive reorganization of space along neoliberal lines through infrastructural investments, construction projects, and the wholesale restructuring of urban landscapes. The grandiose government project, Canal Istanbul, which envisages the construction of a 45 kilometer-long, 150 meter-wide artificial waterway between the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea by 2023, costing more than $10 billion, is the zenith of this mentality. This project is also extended to the virtual construction of a new city within Istanbul, an airport, a seaport and a number of recreational areas. The building of new highways and a third bridge in the Bosphorus further exemplify the AKP government’s attempt to ensure the stability and expansion of capitalist accumulation. It is thus no surprise that rent-seeking and speculative construction initiatives (TOKI/Housing Development Administration/Toplu Konut İdaresi Başkanlığı, Canal Istanbul, shopping malls, public parks, etc.) constitute the backbone of AKP’s political economy, the influence of which undermines agricultural and industrial sectors as foundations for genuine economic development (Kahraman 2013: 38-39, 46, Sönmez 2013: 18, 136). The rise in the construction sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product, in comparison with agriculture and manufacturing, demonstrates the spectacular influence of the construction sector under AKP.1 The strategic importance of the construction sector emanates also from the fact that it serves as the mainstay for the creation of a new community of conservative-Islamic capitalists who are organically connected to the AKP government (Dorsay 2013: 247).

Similarly, the widespread construction of shopping malls throughout Turkey has been another major driving force of the neoliberal spatial fix in the last decade, leading to a spectacular transformation of the leisure of urban people and the erosion of small shopkeeping. The year 2005 is considered to be a landmark in the spread of shopping malls, after which their number increased from 106 in 2005 to 263 in 2010 and is expected to reach 447 in 2014 (HürriyetDailyNews 2012). The total investment in shopping malls has reached $40 billion, generating a turnover of 50-60 billion Turkish Liras.

Both Canal Istanbul and shopping malls can be considered as prime examples of neoliberal spatial fix, as understood by Harvey. Bob Jessop (2008) points further to the role of “socially constituted spatio-temporal boundaries” or “social arrangements” that help defer or displace the contradictions of capitalism. This happens by hegemonically altering the “social significance” of place and space based on the temporality of memory and cultural identity through educational and other kind of institutional activities. This is the basis for what we call the “political-cultural fix” (PCF). In one way or another, capitalist political regimes need to rely on a political-cultural readjustment of society in order to keep up with the neoliberal adjustment of the economy. PCF encompasses the transformation of a nation’s “memory” and culture through spatial reconstruction and re-symbolization. Both “political-economic” and “political-cultural” fixes speak to what we call the “systemic opportunity structures” surrounding the Gezi events.

As Lovering and Turkmen assert, the implementation of the neoliberal agenda in Turkey, which has reached unprecedented levels under the AKP government, went hand in hand with the “tightening [of political-cultural hegemonic] control over the media and educational appointments” (Lovering & Türkmen 2011: 78). This laid the groundwork for the AKP government to transform people’s “common sense” and everyday culture, through the “Islamic takeover of the city” with a neoliberal and neo-Ottomanist thrust (Karaman 2013, Lovering & Türkmen 2011: 81). The AKP’s blend of neo-Ottomanism with Islamic ideology imposes on the city what Serkan Öngel, the head of the DISK Research Department, calls a “conquest mentality” (Öngel 2013). Here, neo-Ottomanism broadly refers to a political-Islamic hegemonic project that aspires to eradicate the Kemalist-Republican/modernist interpretation of national culture, history, and politics by replacing it with a modern but nostalgic and traditionalist re-interpretation of the Ottoman legacy in a way to erode secularism, civic nationalism, and the idea of progress as the building blocks of the Turkish Republic (Çolak 2006). Neo-Ottomanism also has severe implications for Turkish foreign policy, which aspires to create a “greater Turkey” that acts like an “empire” and “global leader” in the world arena in line with Sunni Islamic principles (Çolak 2006). Critiquing what one understands by neo-Ottomanism, Öngel (2013) points to the AKP’s efforts to restructure people’s perception and memory of Istanbul from the city of the Kemalist Republic to a city built on the legacy of the Ottoman conquest of 1453. Öngel finds it symbolic that the demolition of Gezi Park by the government started in the wake of May 29, the 560th anniversary of Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottomans.

One of the most immediate implications of the Islamic takeover of urban spaces is the increase in the number of mosques. According to the latest official data from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the number of mosques has increased from 75,369 in 2001 to 82,693 in 2011 (PresidencyofReligiousAffairsofTurkey 2011). The AKP government considered the construction of mosques as an opportunity to express its neo-Ottomanist thrust and hegemonic impact on the masses’ cultural-historical memory, as clearly observed in the construction of Mimar Sinan Mosque in Atasehir, a district in the Anatolian part of Istanbul. As “a near replica of the fabulous 16th century Selimiye Mosque in Edirne,” the mosque has become a “power symbol of the AKP government” (DünyaNews 2013).

The PCF of Turkish neoliberalism under the AKP government can also be traced back to such AKP-led urban projects as TOKI and the renovation of Taksim, the site of Gezi Park. TOKI (Housing Development Administration), reinvigorated in the 2000s, is one of the mainstays of AKP’s neoliberal PCF, “as the single most important player in urban regeneration in Turkey” (Lovering & Türkmen 2011: 78-79). Considered one of the most controversial institutions of the AKP years because of its lack of transparency and regulation, TOKI came to displace the urban poor toward new housing units that are unaffordable in the long-run and to commodify urban spaces that were previously occupied by squatters (Sönmez 2013: 144). While serving as a cultural-hegemonic tool to expand the market logic of neoliberalism (and to create a misleading legitimacy of the AKP government as the protector of the urban poor), TOKI also contributed to the proliferation of AKP-led Islamic capitalists insofar as most TOKI contractors are both related to the AKP’s conservative-Islamic circles and are founded during the AKP era (Karaman 2013, Sönmez 2013:20, 144). This is where Harvey’s “political-economic fix” (capital accumulation) and our “political-cultural fix” are articulated simultaneously with a strong cadence: The three largest TOKI realty corporations (Emlak Konut, Torunlar, Sinpaş) are indeed organically tied to the AKP government, with Emlak Konut having more than a third of net TOKI assets (Sönmez 2013: 136-38). Despite its ambitious claim to provide the poor segments of society with social housing, the largest 25 TOKI projects in Istanbul serve to distribute the rent of previously public lands to firms that build luxury housing and shopping malls. It is thus no coincidence that no public information is available as to TOKI’s financial accounts and resources including profits/losses, staff, and investments (144-47). Indeed, it can be argued that the Gezi protests were implicitly related to the question of drastic urban renewal led by TOKI, explicitly pointing to the commodification of urban spaces, the lack of accountability, and the destruction of green spaces.

The ideal of “Islamizing” Taksim’s landscape, which has long haunted the Turkish right, is placed in a neoliberal framework by the AKP, which created a systemic political opportunity for the Gezi events. As Birge Yıldırım (2012) suggests, public squares have been among the symbols of the Kemalist Republic. Public squares were part of the Republic’s secularist struggle to eliminate the urban fabric the Ottoman past. Taksim square and Gezi Park, as symbols of secularism and progress, were planned as urban spaces that would make the celebration of the new republic permeate into the daily lives of the newly branded “Turkish citizens,” along with solving the problems of urban transportation, hygiene/ecology and aesthetics (Baykan & Hatuka 2010, Yıldırım 2012).

Besides being a symbol of the Republic, Taksim Square constitutes a symbolic space for the Turkish left, especially for the celebration of May Day. The Square symbolizes government repression for most Turkish leftists, which is registered in their collective memory following the May 1977 Events, which tragically ended with gunshots, bombings, mass panic and 34 deaths. Since 2007, the restriction on May Day demonstrations in Taksim by the AKP government has been a major source of contention and controversy, which led to illegal demonstration attempts and excessive police violence (Baykan & Hatuka 2010).

In addition to such embedded meanings, Taksim Square has also been subject to severe cultural controversies that engaged a broader public with the AKP government’s attempts to build a mosque in the square. One could add to this the government’s project of rebuilding the historic Topçu Barracks, a symbol of the Ottoman past, built by the Sultan Abdul Hamid I, and its insistence on demolishing the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM), a secular cultural symbol hosting a concert venue and opera/ballet house – which is currently evacuated. Here, we have shifted the focus from systemic political opportunities to conjunctural political opportunities leading to the Gezi mobilization, where AKP’s long-term strategies of capital accumulation and ideological/cultural aspirations manifest themselves in concrete political struggles for space and culture. In this regard, it is no coincidence that the Gezi protesters re-appropriated the AKM and turned it into a strategic symbol of resistance by occupying its building and decorating it with giant flags. Above all, the protesters strongly resisted the construction of military barracks and/or shopping mall at the expense of Gezi Park.

Another emblematic instance of PCF under AKP rule is the demolition of the Emek Movie Theater (EMT, or Emek Sineması) so as to turn it into an entertainment and shopping area. Serving as a centerpiece of Istanbul’s prestigious international film festival, Emek dates from the early-Republic era and used to be a major symbol of the Republic and modern art. Its demolition in 2013 aroused the angst of secular and leftist sectors and intelligentsia, and was accompanied by sonorous public criticism and protests. Another source of massive contention has been the ban of outdoor seating in bars and restaurants by the AKP-run municipalities, along with severe limitations on the consumption of alcohol. The latest law “prohibits retail sales between 10pm and 6am, bans all alcohol advertising and promotion, and stops new shops and bars from opening within 100 meters of schools and mosques” (TheEconomist 2013a, TheGuardian 2013). It goes without saying that AKP’s Taksim Project is closely related to the conservative elimination of Taksim’s historic urban fabric as the center of entertainment, leisure and alcohol consumption. It is in response to this that the protests erupted in the Taksim area included slogans such as “we are all marauders and drunkards.”

The opportunities arising out of the AKP’s political-economic spatio-temporal fix found their immediate expression in popular slogans that underlined the rent-seeking urban renewal projects of the government. One placard said, “don’t touch my neighborhood, my square, my tree, my water, my land, my home, my seed, my forest, my village, my city, my park!” This straightforward message against drastic urban renewal projects was underpinned with a strong anti-capitalist/anti-neoliberal thrust throughout the Gezi Park events. Calling the PM “rentier” [rantçı Tayyip], many slogans underlined that “the squares are ours; we shall not give them up to capital,” or that “we already pedestrianized Taksim! There is no need for you” – which teases the government’s “pedestrianization” project of Taksim. The aphorism, “capitalism will cut down the tree whose shadow it cannot sell,” was widely repeated among the protesters and in works of street art. In response to the neoliberal plunder of the city with malls and grandiose construction initiatives, one humorous placard said, “let’s demolish the government and build a shopping mall instead!”; and another posited that “the road to victory lies in resistance, not in a bridge” (referring to the Third Bridge project). The concept “urban renewal” was replaced with “revolutionary renewal” in one bill, and the slogan “resist Gezi!” and “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” became the catchphrases of the movement, underscoring the claiming of urban space by the people.

In addition to the slogans directed at AKP’s market-based or political-economic “spatial fix,” the protesters also targeted the government’s “political-cultural fix” that complements neoliberalism with an Islamic-authoritarian worldview. AKP’s aggressive promotion of the Ottoman Empire as a glorious memory (and a model to abide by) received considerable reaction from the protesters. “Claim your future, not your past!” said one bill, which was accompanied by another that held that “our history is not for sale.” The latter bill refers to the commercialization of Ottoman history by the government at the expense of erasing Republican imagery from the urban landscape. One placard picked on the government’s Ottomanism: “you’re at the age when Fatih conquered Gezi!,” which makes fun of a conservative poem that warns the youth against complacency, for the Ottoman Emperor Fatih the Conqueror had done great things at their age. “Another head is possible,” uttered one other bill (echoing the slogan “another world is possible”), where “head” here refers to the mentality of the government, marked by a combination of neoliberalism and Islamism.

In response to that uncompromising “head,” “nature” was brought forward by the protesters as the remedy. The slogan, “don’t be a wooden blockhead, be a tree” [Odun olma, ağaç ol] made a play on words, as “wood” in Turkish is used in slang to refer to “thickness,” which is contrasted with the “wisdom” of being a tree. “Long live our ecological revolution,” said some graffiti, highlighting the green tones of Gezi against authoritarian market logic. “Government kills, nature gives life!” follows the same logic. “Respect existence or expect resistance” is also to counter the government’s neoliberal and anti-environmentalist urban policies along with moralistic impositions.

Lastly, the AKP’s social interventionism along Islamic-conservative lines (particularly the stigmatization of alcohol, abortion and C-section, and public display of affection) was criticized by the movement. “You banned alcohol and sobered up the nation” was commonly used to ironically refer to the simultaneity of nationwide uprisings and the legislation on alcohol restrictions. “We the drunkards gathered here” reclaimed the word “drunkard,” which was used by the PM to insult the protesters. “We don’t want a prime minister who is fascist day and night” was painted on walls to tease the PM’s controversial statement, “we don’t want a generation who is drunk day and night.” “This is ayran’s stupor” also ridiculed the PM’s assertion that ayran (a non-alcoholic beverage made with yogurt) should be the national drink, as opposed to rakı (a Turkish alcoholic beverage made of grape and anise) or beer. With regard to interventionist policies on population control, one placard said, “are you sure you want three kids like us?” –referring to the PM’s paternalistic insistence that every family should have “at least three kids.” “We resisted and aborted the dead citizen within ourselves,” similarly, touched upon the stigmatization of abortion, and linked it to people’s awakening to defend their rights. As these slogans demonstrate, the AKP government’s neoliberal spatio-temporal fix, accompanied by its Islamic-authoritarian political-cultural fix, were captured by the protesters, and constituted an important aspect of the political opportunity structures.

Political Regimes, State Capacity and Social Mobilization

State capacity under the AKP government has tremendously increased in the areas of security and religious control. In this respect, Tilly’s definition of “high-capacity undemocratic regimes” seems to describe Turkey’s situation: “Little public voice except as elicited by the state; extensive involvement of state security forces in any public politics; regime change either through struggle at the top or mass rebellion from the bottom” (Tilly 2007: 20). Turkey is fast becoming a security state with Islamic characteristics. In 2013, the security apparatus of the Turkish state (including the General Directorate of Security, the General Command of Gendarmerie, the Councillorship of the National Intelligence Organization and the Command of Coastal Security) received a gigantic budget of 22 billion Turkish liras. Similarly, the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs increased from 0.55 billion TL in 2002 (when AKP came to power) to 1.3 billion in 2006 and 4.6 billion in 2013, outpacing that of 11 major ministries, including the Ministries of Interior, Health, and Economy.

There is no question that the AKP’s Islamic and security-oriented state capacity led to a considerable decline in freedom, civil liberties and political rights (FreedomHouse 2001, 2013).2 According to the Freedom House (2013), this decline is mainly due to the lack of an independent judiciary, of free self-expression and of academic freedom, censorship, and to the “pretrial detention of thousands of individuals ... in campaigns that many believe to be politically motivated.” It is thus unsurprising that the prevailing slogans of the Gezi Park Events expressed the need for democracy and freedom: “down with the AKP dictatorship,” “shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” etc.

Judicial oppression has been a major issue in the assessment by Freedom House. The trial process for what is known as the Ergenekon case started in June 2007, following the discovery of grenades in a house in Istanbul which were believed to belong to an ultra-nationalist terrorist organization that aims to overthrow the AKP government. Rather than expose the perpetrators, mainstream accounts tend to confirm that the Ergenekon case turned into a widespread witch-hunt targeting anti-AKP politicians, businessmen, journalists, intellectuals, republicans, and leftists “without any legal charge” under a judiciary heavily dominated by the AKP (FreedomHouse 2012a, 2012c, HürriyetDailyNews 2013). Ergenekon has been followed by the Sledgehammer [Balyoz] case, under which hundreds of anti-AKP military officials have been jailed, accused of plotting a coup (Tisdall 2012). These cases have led to massive unrest among the Turkish population, a considerable portion of which thinks that Turkey has turned into an “empire of fear,” lacking accountability and dominated by political arbitrariness.

Another major public concern was government phone-tapping. Phone-tapping of politicians, activists, journalists, intellectuals and even ordinary citizens has become one of the most heated issues for Turkish public opinion in the aftermath of the Ergenekon case. This has added to the public debate on the “media autocracy that the AKP administration has created” by exerting political and economic pressures on the mainstream media, and by actively supporting the growth of Islamic-oriented media corporations (Akser & Baybars-Hawks 2012: 305). Media ownership patterns have shifted drastically in favor of AKP-friendly corporations that took over such conglomerates as the Uzan and Ciner groups. Many anti-AKP columnists were laid off by the mainstream media, which could not resist pressure from the AKP government. There have been severe bans on Youtube, file-sharing websites, and even pornographic websites. It is therefore no surprise that the mainstream media and government control were severely critiqued by Gezi protesters.

“And they ask me why I don’t read newspapers,” one wall sign read, implying that reliable knowledge cannot be gathered from the Turkish media. The international slogan “the revolution will not be televised” was used in its original English in many instances, referring to the media blackout of the nationwide protests. “Sellout media!” [satılmış medya] or “coward media” were among popular slogans, due to their prioritization of private financial gain over the public interest, and their proximity to government circles. “Our consciousness is silent due to technical issues” was a quote attributed to the media, ironically underlining their lack of integrity. Interestingly, penguins became the uncontested symbol of the media blackout among the protesters, due to CNN Turk airing (and not interrupting) a documentary on penguins on the first night of the events as hundreds of thousands of people were out in the streets, and the country was literally burning. Accordingly, street walls and bills were decorated with penguin images, which became one of the main symbols of the Gezi Events.

The rise of AKP’s authoritarianism also revealed itself in their initiative to change Turkey’s system of government from parliamentary to a presidential regime with autocratic tendencies. Public opinion was divided into two hostile camps: those who support the AKP government, and those who are concerned about the PM’s ambitions to declare himself the “Sultan.”

With the media blackout of Gezi, we shift our focus from systemic to conjunctural political opportunities created by recent instances of state intervention that directly contributed to the Gezi mobilization. More along these “conjunctural” lines, positioning himself as a paternalistic figure, Erdoğan kept arguing that each family should have at least three children: “One or two children mean bankruptcy. Three children mean we are not improving but not receding either. So, I repeat, at least three children are necessary in each family.” People’s long accumulated concerns about Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and AKP’s social interventionism took on a greater influence as the PM publicly stigmatized alcohol consumption by targeting people who “drink until they wheeze and sneeze.” In turn, Bülent Arınç, the deputy prime minister, asserted that “life isn’t just about sex and booze.” Erdoğan’s call to make ayran the national drink (so as to delegitimize alcohol) produced the slogan, “One state, one flag, one people, one drink.” In similar fashion, Erdoğan advocated the prohibition of abortion and C-section, which aroused the anger of thousands of people. In addition, State Minister Aliye Kavaf’s said publicly that “homosexuality is a disease.”

A sensational protest occurred right before the June uprising in a subway station in Ankara, against public transit employees interfering with couples’ behaviors. During what is known as the “kissing protest,” around 200 people got together in a subway station in Ankara and began kissing in public; they were in turn attacked by Islamists. The interference of conservative transit employees with couples and single women has become a common pattern, with several incidents having occurred also on buses, where bus drivers assaulted women wearing mini-skirts and couples sitting arm in arm. The political opportunity conjuncture was also heavily impacted by a particular instance of state intervention that reflected the increasing government control of social media and Internet and triggered widespread protests: Fazil Say, an internationally renowned pianist was sentenced to 10 months of prison for blasphemy because of his re-tweet of a verse by the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyám. This prison sentence was protested by tens of thousands of people.

Citizens coming from a diverse array of backgrounds (gays, environmentalists, feminists, Armenians, socialists, anarchists, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, and atheists) thus felt threatened by the government seeking to dictate what the national values are and how individuals should (or should not) behave in their private lives (TheEconomist 2013b). Within this context, the protesters resolutely reacted against the Islamic social interventionism of the AKP government, which contributed to the further escalation of Gezi Events. Hence the following wall slogan, which refused the imposition of Islamic morality: “Public morality, whose morality?” The public’s reaction to the prohibition of kissing, homophobia and stigmatization of abortion found its echo in the following wall slogans: “We are all kissing incessantly, Tayyip,” “and what if we are gay!” [Velev ki ibneyiz!], “don’t make war, make love with me, Tayyip” [Savas ma sevis benimle tayyip]. Erdoğan’s authoritative “three kids” policy provided a valuable opportunity for the escalation of the Gezi Events. This is strongly evidenced by many wall slogans that became popular among the protesters. “Don’t make 3 kids, plant 3 trees instead” was popular, along with the previously mentioned line, “would you like three more like us?” Moreover, “Tayyip oppresses his own people” was used to denote the PM’s ambitious and authoritarian rule, which was also captured in the slogans, “we’re going to overthrow your Sultanate!” and “No Recep, No Cry.” AKP’s high regime capacity/undemocratic rule, therefore, complements its political-cultural fix in reorganizing socio-spatial relations along neoliberal and Islamic authoritarian lines that aggressively interfere with the lives and choices of individuals and communities – thus contributing to the social grievances enabling political opportunity structures.

International Realignments as Social Mobilization Opportunities

The AKP government’s foreign policy initiatives, particularly those in the Middle East, constitute an additional enabling variable for political opportunity structures. The AKP government has long provided both financial and logistical support for the Sunni extremist challengers to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Al-Qaeda/Salafist movement has become the main beneficiary of Turkey’s support and hospitality for the opposition groups. Al-Qaeda/Salafist groups, welcomed in Turkey in thousands, clashed with the locals of Hatay, the southern province of Turkey bordering Syria. The Salafists explicitly articulate Turkey’s official support to them in their daily confrontation with local people. Refusing to pay for services they get from local businesses, many Salafists invoked the government protection they received, saying “it is Prime Minister Erdoğan who brought us here: he would be the one to pay the bill,” or backing up threats by saying “or else we will call Recep” (Kaplangil 2012). According to The Economist, the flow of refugees increased at a rapid pace, reaching 4,000 people a day (TheEconomist 2012). Moreover, it is reported that contrary to Turkish government figures (which indicate 42,000 asylum seekers) there are at least 40,000 more “guests” in the area who are unofficially settled in individual houses, each inhabited by groups of 10-15 people, serving as cells linked to organizations such as Al-Qaeda (Ödemiş 2012). The inhabitants of Hatay explicitly express their fear of those “bearded Syrians” who disturb the public order, having been involved in a total of 157 incidents in which 360 Syrians have been sued (Kaplangil 2012). Turkish military and other state officials do nothing to prevent the border breach by such terrorist groups. On the contrary, they facilitate their infiltration by partially removing the barbed wires on the borders, and reports indicate that officials are providing shuttles and ambulance services to these groups in Turkey (Ödemiş 2012). Moreover, at least 50 people with Turkish citizenship have joined the fight against President Assad’s regime, a large majority of whom were trained in Afghanistan. Among them are volunteers who previously fought in Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq, and who were involved  with Al-Qaeda bombings of HSBC, the British Consulate General, and many synagogues in Turkey (Aksu 2012).

As for the conjunctural political opportunities leading to the Gezi mobilization, local concerns have gained a nationwide character and reached their pinnacle with the infamous car bombings in the town of Reyhanlı, Hatay. The repercussions of the bombings, leading to at least 50 deaths and 140 injuries, were strongly felt in the rest of the country to erode the government’s legitimacy. Besides being one of the major triggers of the Gezi Events (Vurucu 2013: 16), the eruption of people’s anger against the AKP government following the Reyhanlı Bombings can be considered a turning point in contemporary Turkish politics. With government controlling the media and business, almost any voice of dissent was censored, and the crime escaped scrutiny. A court order was passed to officially prohibit the press from talking about or investigating the bombings, which led to serious doubts regarding spoliation of evidence by the Turkish government. The government’s attempt to blame Assad’s regime for the bombings found little credibility in Turkish public opinion, which instead faulted the government’s adventurist policy in Syria. The result was widespread mass protests throughout the country and a sensational protest during a soccer game days before the Gezi Events, which called on the government to resign. This massive public reaction signaled a transformation of people’s perception from a “republic of fear” (dominated by the AKP) into a “republic of protest,” uniting various groups against the AKP to create an opportunity structure. In the words of a Gezi slogan, “The Republic of Fear has collapsed!”

Unsurprisingly, the Reyhanlı Bombings constituted a major framing target for Gezi protesters. Hence the wall slogans “Gezi is Reyhanlı” and “Don’t forget about Reyhanlı.” Gezi protesters also named the trees at Gezi Park after the victims of the Reyhanlı Bombings. It does not escape the eye that Gezi protesters also appropriated the symbol of Reyhanlı Bombings, i.e. the well-known photo of 71-year-old Döne Kuvvet with her arms wide open crying in the middle of the ruins. Some wall illustrations made by the Gezi protesters presented a similar woman with the sole difference that Döne Kuvvet’s figure was raising her left fist and wearing a gas mask. Thus, the AKP’s reckless politics in Syria, by suddenly destroying the credibility of the government, was another central element that added to the political opportunity structures leading to the Gezi Events.


Drawing on a Marxian reinterpretation of political opportunity structures analysis, we have distinguished between long-term/structural (“systemic”) political opportunities and short-term/instance-driven (“conjunctural”) opportunities. The rationale behind this distinction is the Marxian concern that the class-structural and hegemonic aspects of the state and other external actors can be decisive in the emergence and impact of political opportunities that lead to social mobilization in the long term. It is thus important to keep in mind that social movements deal not only with “impartial” state actors, but also with the representatives of dominant class fractions that have different political projects. In this sense, one should pay special attention to the ways in which capitalist projects (“neoliberalism with Turkish/Islamic characteristics” in the case of Turkey) are linked to the course of social mobilization. In Turkey, the systemic accumulation of popular grievances can be analyzed based on what we call the “political-cultural fix” of neoliberalism (in addition to the “political-economic” spatio-temporal fix as described by Harvey), i.e. the geographically/historically specific ways in which neoliberalism is legitimized and reproduced. Hence the strategic importance of the expansion of shopping malls, neoliberal urban projects, and mosques in the AKP government’s drive to transform the urban fabric within an anti-Republican and neo-Ottomanist framework.

Moreover, we have argued that the systemic opportunities (neo-Ottomanist urban renewal, judicial oppression, media and internet censorship, government spending, controversies around the presidential system, support for Salafist groups) are supplemented by their conjunctural manifestations. The latter include such elements as Topçu Barracks, AKM, EMT, stigmatizing declarations (on alcohol consumption, abortion, C-section, public display of affection/kissing, three kids policy, homophobic declarations, Reyhanlı incidents, etc.). The analysis of conjunctural opportunities with a focus on the chain of relatively recent events is necessary to understand the direct and immediate factors that enable social mobilization in response to long accumulated grievances.

In brief, a combination of structural and conjunctural opportunities gave birth to the Gezi Park protests, which may or may not be the beginning of a larger protest cycle in Turkey. The revitalization of the protests in the fall of 2013, which brought together masses nationwide to protest Turkey’s neo-Ottomanist foreign policy on Syria and to prevent the demolition of a forest in the Middle East Technical University (Ankara) for a road construction project, indicates that the “Gezi Process” may not have ended. In any case, Gezi “spirit” has already become a part of people’s everyday lives.


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1. The share of construction grew by 14.1%, 9.3%, 18.5% in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and 18.3% and 11.5% in 2010 and 2011. The rise in the GDP share of agriculture and manufacture is considerably lower than that of construction: in agriculture, the growth was recorded only as 2.7%, 6.6%, 1.3%, 2.4% and 6.2% for the same time period. As for manufacture, the growth amounted to 11.9%, 8.2%, 8.4%, 13.6%, and 10% (TurkStat 2013).

2. Since we use Freedom House data together with other sources, our disagreement with Freedom House’s conceptualization of democracy is immaterial to the present discussion.