From the Gezi Parki protests to the Democratisation Package

by Gonenc Uysal

Protestsers vs. police forces. Istnbul. Events of June 15, 2013.
Protesters vs. police forces, Istanbul, 15 June 2013
(photo by Mstyslav Chernov)

It has been just over six months since the start of Gezi Parki protests on 30th May. Amnesty International constantly reported widespread and systematic abusive force and called on police to desist. Amnesty also published a report on the Gezi Parki protests which documented the casualties and the most serious injuries:

In Ankara, Ethem Sarisuluk was shot in the head by a police officer on 1 June and died of his injuries on 14 June. A police officer was indicted on the least serious charges possible – causing death by exceeding the limits of legitimate defence without intent. As the trial continues, Sarisuluk’s family and potential witnesses are still being harassed. In Eskisehir, Ali Ismail Korkmaz was severely beaten and died of his injuries on 10 July. CCTV evidence of the beating was destroyed but four police officers and four civilians are due to stand trial for causing his death. In Hatay, witnesses reported that Abdullah Comert was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired at close range by a police officer on 3 June and died of his injuries on the following day. Other injuries and human rights violations included plastic bullets aimed at heads and upper bodies, sexual assault and beating, using chemical irritants in the water cannon supply tanks, and the use of live ammunition.  In Adana, Mustafa Sari, a police officer, fell down while he was interfering in protests and died. The AKP circles stated that he was pushed by protestors but this accusation was denied by Sari’s family circles. According to Turk Tabipleri Birligi (Turkish Medical Association), 7,832 people in total were injured.

The protests seemed to fade away as summer passed; then widely staged protests resumed in Turkey in early September. Due to spatial constraints, prolongations of Gezi Park protests cannot be detailed. However, for further information, it is important to look at some protests such as ODTU (METU) student protests, Hatay protests and protests against HES project in the Black Sea region. Demonstrations during the trials for those who died during the Gezi Parki protests such as Sarisuluk davasi, or against the decisions of Ergenekon trials, Alevis’ protests and the Yatagan workers’ protests, are also telling.

But what has changed since Gezi Parki?

On 30 September, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced a ‘democratisation package’ which addressed the following issues:

  • Article 42 of the Constitution that accepts Turkish as the mother tongue, however, which allows teaching of different languages under other laws. The liberation of the teaching of native languages (including Kurdish) would be regulated with Law No 5580 which would allow teaching of Kurdish language in private schools.
  • The abolition of the Turkish Penalty Law Article 222, which punished the usage of the letters W, Q, X with from 2 to 6 months of imprisonment. These letters are used for Kurdish alphabet -and are not used in the Turkish alphabet.
  • Veiling which was prohibited with the public mandate published in 1982 would be allowed in the public sphere except in the military, police and judiciary
  • The Mor Gabriel Church would be granted the status and returned to Assyrian community. However, there is no further regulation about the return of properties that were transferred to third persons
  • Three alternatives to the electoral threshold were proposed: Firstly, the single member district which divides Turkey into 550 electoral regions will cancel this threshold; secondly, the re-drawing of the constituency which will be represented with three to five MPs; and finally, maintaining the present d’hondt method system with a 10% barrier
  • Treasury aid for parties that exceed 3% barrier
  • Return of names of towns which aim at to change Tunceli with Dersim, Aydinlar with Tillo and Guroymak with Norsin
  • Crimes of hatred and discriminatory laws are regulated
  • Introduction of cultural institute and language courses for Roman Communities
  • Protection of private life and lifestyle
  • Allowance of political propaganda in different languages
  • Regulations on the right to assemble and protest
  • Abolition of the Turkish school oath
  • Nevsehir University will be renamed as Haci Bektas Veli University whose name is very significant for Alevis. However, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag is working on Alevis demands and needs, and it is foreseen that this work will be put on the agenda later.

Prime Minister Erdogan stated that the package represented the democratic level that Turkey has now reached. He underlined that ‘the state no longer imposed any identity or interfered with ethnicity, faith and thoughts, but the state now was determined to keep humans alive to keep the state alive’. He also added that ‘the government did not exert authority in the public sphere that turned the public spaces into hell against citizens who did not act according the government’s definition of correctness’. Deputy PM Bulent Arinc stated that polls showed ‘75% of the population found the package satisfactory’. Arinc also underlined that this was ‘a continuing process’ and the AKP could do more in the future.

It should be noted that the package includes positive democratic reforms. However, especially in social media, Gezi Parki protesters demonstrated their dissatisfaction. This package did not satisfy some sectors of Kurdish population since the BDP stated that ‘the package did not respond to the abolition of electoral barrier’, or the ‘right of equal representation and local parliaments that would secure autonomy’. Moreover, the package amends the regulations on freedom of assembly to extend the protests for an extra hour if permission for the protest is granted in the first place. Additionally, the issue of the Special Authority Courts, that arguably had common features with the State Security Courts that were abolished in 2004, was not addressed. Similarly, long detention periods and no amnesty to political prisoners including political activists, journalists and MPs who were involved in the Gezi Parki, protests were ignored. Concerns about the Turkish Penal Code, the Anti-Terror Law or the Law on Police Duties and Powers were also not responded to. Moreover, it is not clear how hate speech will be regulated: the amendment must not become a legal platform to punish criticisms which will greatly impede on freedom of speech. The most controversial example would be Fazil Say, the high-profile Turkish pianist’s trial over his social media messages about Islam. On the other hand, there was also no mention of hate speech and crimes against the LBGT community members.

Although the minority religious group Alevis’ concerns were stated to be addressed in the future, the package did indeed say nothing about Alevi community’s rights and freedoms such as spaces of prayer (Cemevi), rejection of the emphasis of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi) on Sunni Islam, and so forth. The government undertook the construction of a joint Mosque-Space of prayer (Cami-Cemevi) centre to represent their close ties. However, this was rejected by large sections of the Alevis population on the basis on the state’s hidden agenda to supervise the Alevi community. At the same time, the government launched a project to abolish Alevi foundations and establish Izzettin Dogan’s  Cem Vakfi as the only Alevi foundation. It should be noted that Dogan was also the member of the committee appointed by the government to visit regions of Turkey and note demands of civil-society organisations to create the democracy package. However some members of the same committee later accused the government on the basis that they were ‘used’ and ‘the package did not represent the larger segments of society’.

Currently, the Turkish political arena has been staging a debate about Erdogan’s statements on ‘university student girls and boys staying together’ (sharing a flat –mixed-sex student houses). Erdogan stated that ‘this is contrary to our conservative structure’ and also added that ‘he gave directive to governors, they would do what is required for regulation’. The next day, the Governor of Adana declared that Erdogan’s speech was indeed understood as a directive and they would do what is required. The CHP underlined the fundamental rights and freedoms of students and asked that the content of the directive, content of regulation, control over students who are already over the age of 18, problems about meetings of girls and boys, and particularly the content of ‘conservative democratic structure’ be clarified.

The biggest question remains: What is the AKP’s understanding of democracy? On one hand, the government prepares a democratic package that would secure rights and freedoms in the public sphere, on the other, the government interferes and re-draws society’s private life by mistreating them on the axis of morality.

The AKP’s interpretations are indeed hidden in its discourse of ‘conservative democracy’ which represents the AKP’s hegemonic ideology with Islamist references. When the founding members of the AKP, namely Abdullah Gul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bulent Arinc established the Party, they stated that they changed the ‘shirt’ of National View Movement (Milli Gorus) which had an arguably clearer Islamist agenda. Therefore, they formulated ‘conservative democracy’ where their religion does not impede on their politicking. Indeed, AKP always followed the secular separation of religion from the state affairs to achieve their economic policies.

However, while separating state and religion, Turkish secularism places religion under the state’s control. This enables the AKP to re-shape the boundaries of the public and private sphere. Although amendments such as the lift on headscarves are indeed democratic reforms, the AKP has long been using the discourse of ‘our veiled sisters’ to create a binary opposition between ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The AKP’s infringements upon the private life-styles are simply an extension of creating appropriate citizens. Regarding the material gains, the democracy package guides the local elections by representing the AKP as a democracy-builder. The 50% of votes that the AKP received in the 2011 elections urged Prime Minister Erdogan to construct the electoral game on the image of 50% AKP-voters versus 50% other. He understood the Gezi Parki protests as a threat to his authoritative image instead of an opportunity for a further democratisation. Therefore, Erdogan’s speeches deepen the polarisation in society and aim to guarantee ‘conservative’ votes.

In democracies, legislation remains a symbolic act. Having sometimes associated itself with the Ottoman tradition, the AKP should have learnt better from the controversial consequences of the Tanzimat (Gulhane Rescript of 1839) era and its idea of top-down reform through legislation including predominantly through the Constitution. On the contrary, consolidation of democracy can be secured through internalising its underlying ethos.


Gonenc Uysal is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where she focuses on discourses of the interaction of secularism and Islamism and how these interact with civil-military relations in Turkey.

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