How real are Erdogan’s ‘second Gezi’ worries?

Turkey’s president and his far-right ally have come to issue harsh warnings against opposition protests, but in the absence of any sign that such protests could erupt, their real aim appears to be to nourish polarization.

al-monitor Relatives of people who were killed during the anti-government protests attend a demonstration to mark the fifth anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, in central Istanbul, Turkey, May 31, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Dec 20, 2018

As Turkey’s March 31 local elections draw nearer, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rarely misses an opportunity to recall the 2013 Gezi Park resistance and warn of serious consequences for those who might think of taking to the streets again to protest his government. In a series of recent speeches, Erdogan has attacked journalists and the main opposition leader, portraying the constitutional right to peaceful demonstration as a crime.

Naturally, a naive question comes to mind: Could it be that Ankara has obtained intelligence of certain anti-government organizations and groups planning massive street protests to topple the government? Hence, could it be that the government is pre-emptively warning oppositionists in a bid to thwart the protests before they have even started?

Yet there is another question that is not naive at all. Is the government fearmongering about “the opposition taking to the streets” actually a bid to prevent any slackening in its base as it feels the pressure of an economic crisis that is fueling unemployment and the cost of living for opposition and government supporters alike in the run-up to elections? Thus, is the government trying to further polarize the nation? Is this why journalists and the main opposition leader stand accused of “calling the people to the streets”?

While looking for the answers, let’s start with some interesting details about a TV journalist in Erdogan’s crosshairs and the channel where he presents a popular program. Fox TV, which is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has had a Turkish-language channel of the same name since 2007, and the channel’s prime-time news program, presented by Fatih Portakal, has held the rating leadership in its category since 2013. A key factor — or perhaps the most important one — in Portakal’s rating success is that he could often be critical of the government — something that is inherent to journalism but is lacking on other TV channels, which are largely under government control. On the evening of Dec. 10, the first day of yet another week that saw Portakal dominate the ratings, he made comments that unleashed the wrath of the government.

The subject pertained to the right to hold meetings and demonstrations, which Article 34 of Turkey’s Constitution is supposed to guarantee.

After presenting a news report about a police clampdown on “yellow vests” protests in France, Portakal brought the subject to the Turkish government’s repressive stance against peaceful demonstrations and the corresponding heavy-handed approach of the police. “You know that even peaceful protests would not be possible in Turkey and that police officers are obliged to follow the orders of their superiors against those who take to the streets for peaceful protests,” he commented.

Then, he added, “Come on, let’s try. Let’s protest in a peaceful way. Let’s protest the price hikes, the price hikes on natural gas [for home heating]. Can we do it? How many people would take to the streets amid fear and apprehension? [How many would think] ‘I’ll be beaten up and so, yet I’ll stand up for my rights, but will I get into trouble or not?’ Tell me, for God’s sake, how many people could take to the streets? So, this is how they are trying to suppress and intimidate individual and public opposition. It is the most natural right but it is not being implemented. Honestly, it makes no difference whether it’s France or Turkey.”

On the day Portakal made those comments, a column in the pro-government daily Takvim called for “chopping off the heads” of anti-government protesters who took part in the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer of 2013. The headline of the article, penned by Erkan Tan, was a harsh warning to anyone who might take inspiration from the “yellow vests” movement in France. “Those who dream of yellow vests in Turkey will end up in yellow skirts,” the headline read. It was a sexist expression suggesting that men who join street protests against the government would be humiliated by being forced to wear skirts, while insulting women in the meantime.

A couple of days later, Devlet Bahceli, the head of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party and an ally of Erdogan, sharpened the tone of the threats. In a written statement Dec. 12, Bahceli referred to the day after the March 31 polls and warned of a “very hefty price” to pay for anyone who might “dream of a new Gezi and a new street movement on the morning of April 1.” He added, “Those who put on yellow vests should take the risk of lying down naked [later]. This is no joke.”

While some social media users opined that “lying down naked” was an allusion to death, the overwhelmingly pro-government conventional media chose to not delve into what Bahceli meant.

Finally, Erdogan launched a direct attack on Portakal, five days after the journalist had argued that the right to peaceful meetings and demonstrations cannot be utilized in Turkey due to a climate of fear and apprehension gripping society. Speaking at an inauguration ceremony in the southwestern city of Denizli, the president lashed out at Portakal, without naming him. “A person deprived of decency is calling the people to the streets. What a lowlife! The judiciary will certainly give him the appropriate response. What are you doing? Is this Paris here?” Erdogan said in what was a “call to duty” to the judiciary to take action against Portakal. Erdogan went on to warn, “Everyone already learned a lesson from the Gezi incidents and July 15 [the 2016 coup attempt]. Those who attempt such actions in the future will be paying a hefty price."

The president continued to blast the journalist during a ceremony in the central city of Konya two days later, accusing him again of inciting street protests. “Know your place or else this nation will blow up your neck,” he said in his speech.

After “referring” Portakal to the judiciary and “the nation,” Erdogan mounted a similar attack on Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, which is Erdogan's strongest rival in the municipal polls. In a Dec. 16 speech in Istanbul, the president addressed Kilicdaroglu, saying, “This is neither Paris nor the Netherlands. Should you attempt something like Gezi, we will come down on you, just as this nation came down on [the putschists] and their lackeys on July 15. … This time, you won’t even find the chance to run away.”

Now we can answer the question in the headline: The government’s worries of a “second Gezi” are not real. Two things are real, however. First, the government feels the need to close ranks in its voter base as the election approaches and the state of the Turkish economy deteriorates. Second, given those adverse conditions, the government feels compelled to frighten the opposition and its voters.

The fact that the government resorts to such measures ahead of elections despite the power it derives from controlling the bodies supposed to ensure fair and just elections as well as the overwhelming part of the media is a sign of a dramatic increase in political stress caused by the economic crisis.

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