Back to Athens

(June 28th, 2013)

Or, more accurately, back to New York and Oakland.On June 3rd, the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gül attempted to differentiate himself from his party’s response to the protest. Erdogan, among others, made statements about the undemocratic nature of the protests and how the people did not truly represent Turkey, as Erdogan was elected in a landslide in 2011. Gül, on the other hand, scoffed in an interview that the ballot box was not the only form of democracy.

I thought about his statement when I went to the Abbas Agha Park Forum on June 26th. The forum was in a Beşiktaş park, a couple of blocks North from where the police threw teargas at protesters in my first posts about Turkey. Now, all over the country, forums are held with dual aims of education about the protests and injustices and also motivation to change Turkish politics.

I arrived a little after 9 pm, which means I missed the clapping and banging of pots and pans still taking place throughout the city. For some five minutes at 9 pm in Turkey, cars honk and flash their porch lights in solidarity. It was odd at first, but now it’s a reminder that this isn’t over.

So after the 9 pm banging, my group arrived at the park where hundreds of folks were gathered to listen and participate in the forum. The protesters spoke in Turkish, and my language skills were nowhere near good enough to understand everything, so it was a little bit like I was an interloper, only there for the sights, but a lot of people spoke English and could contextualize the hand waving and speeches. I asked in Turkish what one of the signals meant, and he told me, in English, that it meant to hurry up the speech. “Oh, that was the same in Occupy.”

“Yeah, it’s inspired by Occupy.”

I hung around for awhile after my friends left and lent my phone so one of them could record interviews about legitimacy for her research (which I need to get on!). There were smaller working groups scattered around the park. I listened to the politics and media debates, standing idly, but intently focused on the dozen words I could take out of each speech. It’s surprising but you can really get the gist of most things with tone and a few key words.

I stayed for a couple hours and met up with two other friends who’d been there separately. We all connected and talked politics but I mostly told jokes for another hour. Before we left, I tried to go find a bathroom, but wandered around asking people where the “bathhouse” was, which elicited all sorts of weird reactions and poor directions. There is a stereotype here that anyone will give you directions and they’re often inaccurate. That is a proven stereotype. It’s so nice that everyone wants to help, but I should have just listened to Florencia and I just learned directions in our Turkish class.

We were there long enough to see the next group set up and start presenting. Some group from Paris made the banner pictured above of a tree and its roots. The French group sent a message solidarity with #direngezi or whatever it’s called now. The point was that direct democracy is nouveau again and it’s popping up around the world. Regardless of their outcome, the occupations and rebellions throughout the world and especially in Middle East and North Africa, are about popular dissent at their core.

This forum is another democracy. It makes me wonder, how many types of democracy are there? And, are any of them more legitimate than the others? Erdogan posited that his favorite form of democracy is the ballot as it is the most legitimate way to measure the people.

It’s strange in Turkey, though. Actually, a lot of the politics in Turkey is strange and misleading. Erdogan, the head of the majority party in a parliamentary system, is elected by the party machinery, operating at full force at all times. AKP is a rigid hierarchy and Erdogan sits firmly at the top. His party is buffered by the fact there’s a national 10% threshold for any political party to be elected into the parliament, meaning that parties that sweep elections in the East, especially Kurdish parties, can’t muster the 10% and are not represented at all. This means there is a stark overrepresentation of AKP and CHP, the historically Kemalist (nationalist-secular) party.

So Erdogan’s quotes about representing the “true Turkey” are full of steam. His democracy is problematic and unrepresentative, and there is a counter-democracy on the ground actively trying to unseat him. Their methods are a little more old school (or at least a performance of old school) but their resistance is not only a demonstration against Erdogan, socially conservative policies, police violence or Islamization, but also the kind of status quo politics that the national elections provide.

There are several kinds of democracy at work in Turkey, and they often work hand in hand. Erdogan initially relied on his 2011 election in his anti-protester rhetoric, but he and the AKP upper brass felt that the people were eventually going to be moved by police violence on peaceful protesters, so they planned and ran their own rallies. They’re a lot more vitriolic and a lot less funny, but I think the operate on the same premise. If you have a large portion of society visibly represented, it is effectively democratic, even if it is a rally for an increasingly authoritarian leader. The presence of sheer mobs of people appear to be the democracy so it’s an affirmation of the ballot box.

But this is a false affirmation, because the rallies, stocked with folks from all over the nation, clearly lack the critical insight of the secularists and young folks lining up to take Erdogan down.

(It makes me think, would Occupy have been different if everyone was focused on throwing Obama out of office?)

Because of my work with Mazlumder, I’m sensitive to the opposite criticism, too. Despite the solidarity for religious folks in the protests, they really are not present in the dialogue. In the above pictures there are no women in headscarves. The women at my internship are convinced they’d be attacked if they went, which I find unlikely, but the fear remains. There are definitely nationalists that are offended by the sight of a hijaab and there are people who are offended that anyone drinks alcohol.

True democracy is illusory and the media represents the masses in contrasting ways. The point is that there may be solidarity, there may be clear ballot winners, but neither democracy, yet so far, has bridged the gap between the two massive groups.

It’s uphill to Athens.

 

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