Friday, May 9, 2008

May Day Protests Cast Doubt on AKP Legitimacy

PHOTO from Radikal (2/5/08)

I left İstanbul for Madrid in the early morning of April 30 before chaos was expected to spill out on the streets of the city during May Day celebrations. In fact, rather than spilling, it poured. Violence perpetrated by both police and participants defined the day and at its end it was clear that AKP's decision not to allow participants to peacefully celebrate May Day was a horrible miscalculation. In fact, in the days before May Day, AKP officials had been shameless in their statements and preparations leading up to the annual event intended to promote human rights, social justice, and peaceful existence. Most disturbing were disparaging comments made by Prime Minister Erdoğan in which he condescendingly asked, "Should the foot rule the head?" This was the tone leading into the May Day disaster and it is should be no surprise that violence ensued. As a result, serious questions will be raised about AKP and its legitimacy as a liberal, reform-minded party reconsidered.

May Day has long been a troublesome day in Turkish politics and both Erdoğan and İstanbul mayor Kadir Topbaş justified their decision to prevent participants from demonstrating in Taksim Square by pointing to past chaos and intelligence reports received that some actors intended to turn violent. Taksim Square is the choice spot for staging large-scale protests and holiday commemorations. Still very much in the historical memory of Turkey are the May Day protests of 1977 that turned deadly when 39 people were gunned down by unknown men. However, rather than ban the event the next year, then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit declared that he would be at the next May Day and ensure that it did not turn violent. Following the military coup in 1980, May Day festivities were cancelled by the generals' regime of the post-coup years and no longer recognized as a national holiday. The generals considered the day rife with opportunity for leftist agitation and the holiday has not been re-instated since. Under AKP and despite (perhaps because of?) restrictions from entering Taksim Square, May Day demonstrations in Taksim have borne a violent side. However, this year's celebrations proved particularly violent and the state repression of participants especially shocking.

İstanbul vali Muammer Güler had shut down schools on May Day alongside access to roads, trams, and ferries to and from Taksim Square. Although authorities allowed May Day participants to place a wreath on the monument marking the 1977 tragedy, they were firmly in positioned so as to prevent participants from assuming positions in the Square and surrounding streets. While some participants did turn violent and threw Molotov cocktails and bricks at police officers, the police reaction was excessive and included the use of tear gas, water cannons, intimidation with guns, and beatings. The clashes spread beyond Taksim and many of the city's streets were war zones by noon. Tear gas reportedly leaked into hospitals and other buildings in the surrounding area and several participants and unfortunates who happened to be in the area were affected. Much damage was caused both by participants fleeing from the police and some participants breaking windows, ATMs, bus windows, and other property. Stones were thrown at Kurdish participants who were protesting in front of CHP headquarters and shouting anti-AKP and CHP slogans. One cannot pin the violence down on any one party, but needless to say, the polices' use of excessive force heightened the violence. By noon, the labor unions that had planned protests in defiance of authorities called off demonstrations.

In marked contrast, May Day demonstrations in Ankara and Diyarbakır where participants were allowed to celebrate the holiday free of police intervention did not turn violent. This goes to show that AKP officials handling of the holiday in May Day was no doubt a proximate cause of the violence unleashed throughout the morning. Criticism of AKP has been prolific in past days with opposition parties, civil society groups, and human rights activists decrying AKP's repressive tactics as in violation with European Court of Human Rights law. Meanwhile, AKP officials have continued to argue that police did not use excessive force and deny that actions taken by the party or municipal authorities in any way contributed to the violence. Süleyman Çelebi, the secretary-general of the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers' Unions (DİSK), said

"The government does not accept that the police used disproportionate force and treated the demonstrators harshly. The concept of the proportionate use of force is a legal term, which is clearly defined in the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

The police used water cannons and sprayed tear gas at about 40 or 50 workers who were just waiting in front of their trade union building and weren’t involved in the rally, beating them with clubs and kicking those who fell to the ground. Isn’t this disproportionate use of force? Isn’t it disproportionate use of force to throw tear gas bombs at hospitals, which are considered exempt from attack even in wartime?”
DİSK has joined other labor unions in a complaint alleging that İstanbul police chief violated their right to life and freedom of speech and the right to hold demonstrations and rallies. The events of May 1 also put Foreign Minister Ali Babacan in a difficult position ahead of meetings with the EU Troika in Ankara this week. On Tuesday, EU Commisioner Olli Rehn condemned the excessive use of force and called on the government to investigate.

Reportage from news outlets of the affairs reflected the polarization of Turkish news media. Pro-government papers like Zaman played down the protests and reiterated statements by government officials that police force was a necessary and regrettable. They ran photographs of riotous protesters holding Molotov cocktails in contrast to photos documenting police brutality. Meanwhile, anti-government papers did not cease to take advantage of the new opportunity to critize AKP for its failure to respect human rights and protect participants. Critics of the party who have continually asserted that AKP is an Islamist party under cover of liberal reforms have been provided with fresh evidence and AKP must surely endeavor to answer if it is to keep from alienating liberal critics that have already been disenchanted by the party's move to lift the türban ban while not lending equal priority to other reforms. Nicole Pope addresses these criticisms in her May 6 column in Today's Zaman.

AKP's actions will have long-term consequences for the party in that they will solidify detractors' opinion of the party as Islamist and merely hiding behind an ostensible layer of liberalism. The party not only lost a critical opportunity to garner workers' and liberals' support this May Day, but re-inforced ideas already solidly entrenched in the minds of many of these supporters. For AKP to not take advantage of the huge window of opportunity it has to make inroads with these constituents in the absence of a strong leftist and truly liberal party (which CHP under the leadership of Baykal has proved itself not to be), the party casts serious doubt on the legitimacy of its stated aims.

If AKP is to retain its good relationship with the EU and, more importantly, prove to its detractors that it is not the Islamist party they suspect, it must match rhetoric with action. Repeatedly, the AKP uses the language of rights, civil society, and democratic institutionalism and more often than not, passes reform in line with this language. However, when combined with the party's lackluster reform of Article 301 and its seeming attempts to save itself rather than move boldly forward with democratic policies, liberal critics are rightful to be suspicious of the rhetoric and so is Europe. Is the AKP merely trying to co-opt Europe by passing teasingly meager reform or does it seriously consider itself so trapped by opposition parties and the military establishment that it is not willing to move more boldly forward? Why did AKP not push forward with major constitutional reforms and save itself from the closure case in which it currently finds itself entwined? Is concern for its own salvation and, perhaps more accurately, for that of its leadership, so important that it has placed its own ends above that of further democratization?

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