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You are here: Platypus-/Isyan: The participation of the radical left in the Gezi Park protests

Isyan: The participation of the radical left in the Gezi Park protests

Ivo Furman

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

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Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) on the 11th of June. ‘Isyan’ means revolution or uprising in Turkish © Mehmet

On May 28th, 2013, a group of environmental activists gathered to protest the demolition of Gezi Park, a small, urban park in central Istanbul. As the municipal authorities intensified their efforts to evict the activists, the number of demonstrators began to grow. On the morning of the 31th, police raided the demonstrators’ camp and resorted to violence, resulting in more than 100 civilian injuries. Even Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a MP, was hospitalized after being hit by a tear gas canister. Images and videos of the incident quickly spread via social media and a demonstration of more than 10,000 participants gathered on nearby Istiklal Avenue. The protesters held Istiklal Avenue and Gezi Park overnight as demonstrations spread to Ankara and Izmir. Gezi Park was no longer a protest against the demolition of a park, but instead the focal point for people from all walks of life expressing their frustrations with the government.

On the June 1st, Istanbul was at a standstill as thousands of protesters closed down the Bosporus Bridge and crossed over on foot from the eastern side of the city to support their embattled comrades in Taksim Square, a large public square located next to Gezi Park. Mainstream media outlets in Turkey were still refusing to cover the ongoing protests while social media was awash with images of appalling violence. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a televised speech accusing the demonstrators of being çapulcu (looters) and threatening them. A couple of days later, the mainstream media blackout of the demonstrations finally ended and the prime minister left the country for a 3-day tour of North Africa. Meanwhile, the occupation of Gezi Park had expanded and was beginning to turn into an autonomous area, complete with its own kitchen, hospital, and municipal services. Since June 1st, the police had withdrawn from the park and from the neighboring Taksim Square area, allowing demonstrators to occupy vacated buildings in the vicinity. Amongst the buildings occupied was the iconic Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM). The absence of the police in the area lasted until June 11th, when the police returned and took back Taksim Square from the protesters and washed off the graffiti and slogans. Finally, the occupation of Gezi Park ended on June 15th, when police stormed the park dispersing the occupiers.

A schism emerged during the 10 days of occupation around the Gezi Park and Taksim Square area between two separate groups of occupiers. The majority of protesters occupying the area were middle-class citizens with no affiliations to radical organizations. For most of these participants, the Gezi Park protests were about making a statement against a government with an Islamist agenda, which had begun to encroach on the secular lifestyle of the protesters. These protesters were mainly gathered in the Gezi Park area and were the focal point for both national and foreign media outlets covering the event. There was another group of participants in the protests, however, that received a lot less media coverage. This group consisted of the radical left and often outlawed organizations that had established themselves around Taksim Square and around the barricades built during the occupation. The two groups of protesters cooperated in the face of their common adversaries, but tensions between the two groups were soon evident, as the first group tried to distance themselves from the ‘other’ Gezi Park. Eventually, the escalating rift between the two groups created an opportunity for authorities to intervene. The pretext of the first police incursion on the 11 was to rid the area of so-called “marginal elements.” Despite the break between the radical left and the other Gezi Park occupants, the protests have re-vitalized the radical, non-parliamentary left traditions throughout Turkey. As was the case globally, the Left in Turkey, and the radical left in particular, had been in steady decline since the early 1980s. Yet in Turkey the decline can be can be traced more specifically to the coup of 1980.

Prior to the Gezi protests, most radical left organizations in Turkey were running the risk of being forgotten by the younger generation. The archives of websites and forums that have Turkish-speaking online communities with leftist inclinations show a steady decline in any references to organizations such as DHKP-C (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party– Front) or TIKKO in the 2000s. This is partly because the post-1989 generation in Turkey grew up without any contact with the Left. Any sort of reference to the communist or revolutionary left was outlawed in the 1982 constitution and the anti-terrorism laws of the 1990s put most organization members in jail. After the Gezi protests, which offered a great publicity opportunity for these organizations, one can see a visible increase in the number of (positive and negative) references made to radical left organizations on the same websites. The online communities on some of these websites have over 340,000 registered members. One can also see a lot more news in the mainstream media on police operations directed against illegal leftist organizations after Gezi Park. Both examples are ample evidence that some sort of re-vitalization of interest in the radical left has begun.

On September 12th, 1980, a military coup suspending all kinds of political associations, labor unions, and political parties occurred in response to the escalating political violence between the Left and the right in Turkey. Prior to the coup, Turkey’s political scene had been characterized by chronic instability. In 1975, a conservative coalition government formed by the Justice Party (AP), the Nationalist Front (MC), the Islamic fundamentalist National Salvation Party (MSP), and the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) attempted to govern the country after the collapse of the center-left, socialist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) government. However the coalition did not last for very long and there was another general election in 1977 with no clear winner. In the meantime, there was a severe economic crisis, which was triggered by the OPEC oil crisis of 1973. Inflation reached triple digits by 1979. The combination of economic crises and political instability precipitated a cycle of violence between leftist and right-wing organizations that resulted in over 5,000 deaths. A number of incidents, including the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977, the Bahçelievler Massacre in 1978, and the Kahramanmara Massacre in 1978 heightened the crises in Turkish society and created a pretext for military intervention. On the return of democratic elections in 1983, the Left in Turkey experienced a steady decline both in parliamentary and non-parliamentary settings. One of the primary causes of the decline of the Left was the set of new electoral rules contained in the constitution of 1982. The new constitution brought by the military junta of 1980-1983 introduced the so-called 10 percent law for general elections. The law mandated that political parties must win at least 10 percent of the popular vote in order to be represented in the Turkish parliament. The implementation of the new electoral law meant that smaller leftist factions were entirely excluded from political representation. These smaller factions had to either endure exclusion from the Turkish political system (both in terms of financial support and representation) or be subsumed into larger political movements. As a result, a number of leftist factions folded into the nascent Kurdish separatist movement, which was also founded on socialist principles.

The alliance between the Kurdish movement and the radical left during the mid/late 1990s was partly connected to the lack of an active radical left political party in Turkey during this period. The 1980 coup caused both the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) and the Turkish Worker’s Party (TIP) to be banned from politics. In the aftermath of the coup the parties formed a united communist party (TBKP) in 1988, which was banned in 1991. In the place of the TBKP, the Socialist Unity Party (SBP) was founded in 1991, only to be banned by the constitutional court in 1995. After 1995, the former cadres of TIP and TKP separated, causing a fragmentation in the parliamentary Left.[1] The lack of an active radical left party during this period created an opportunity for the Kurdish movement to either marginalize or subsume radical leftist organizations from the pre-1980 era, either fusing leftist politics with Kurdish nationalism, or monopolizing the agenda of the radical left. As a result the non-Kurdish elements of the radical left to were excluded from any sort of political struggle. On the other hand, political parties with small electoral bases such as DSP and SHP were eventually merged into the umbrella organization of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP).

History of the Parliamentary Left in Turkey

Prior to the Gezi Park protests, the parliamentary left in Turkey had been dominated by the secular, state socialist Republican Peoples’ Party and the Peace and Democracy Party, which is the parliamentary representation of the Kurdish movement (BDP). The CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was the first party to rule modern Turkey after the declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Between 1923 and 1945, the CHP ran the country as a single-party state. During this period, there was a fierce ideological rivalry between the state-socialist CHP and the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), which had been founded in 1920. Despite cooperating against western imperialism during the Turkish War of Independence, the CHP subjected the TKP to a number of purges (1925, 1927, and 1929) after the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923. These purges weakened the TKP and caused the party to be marginalized from politics after the transition to multi-party elections in 1945.[2] After the transition into a multi-party system, the CHP lost its first election to the to the Democratic Party (DP) in 1950. The military coup in 1980 saw all political parties, including the CHP, banned. The Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) succeeded the banned party until the pre-1980 political parties were re-legalized in 1992. In 1995, the SHP and the CHP merged into one party under the CHP party umbrella while the DSP remained independent until 2010 when the party administration was finally persuaded to merge with the CHP. Emphasizing a strictly secular/statist/nationalist political tradition, the CHP, despite being the second most popular political party in Turkey, has not won a popular election since 1977. The elitist historical lineage and the secular/ statist/nationalist dogmatism of the political party prevents it from gaining popular appeal within the religious/ethnic under-classes of Turkey and tends to be favored by the secular, white-collar class. Despite electing Kemal Kilicdaroglu who is partly of AleviKurdish ancestry as its new party leader in 2010, the CHP has not yet managed to reach out to the masses of Turkey or reap any significant electoral gains.

On the hand, the BDP is a left social-democratic political party with a Kurdish ethnic underpinning. While currently debates starting out by the symbolic leader of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan, about trying to evolve from the ethnic nationalist line of the BDP towards a wider political platform under the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), the BDP is still firmly an ethnic party dominated by Kurds and the Alevi religious minority. The political tradition of the BDP comes from a long line of political parties that have been banned by the Turkish state in its efforts to curb nascent Kurdish separatism from the late 1970s onwards. The first pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Labour Party (HEP) was founded by seven members of the Social Democratic Populist Party who had been expelled from the party on allegations of Kurdish separatism. Existing for just three years, HEP was banned in 1993 by the Turkish Constitutional Court for the promotion of Kurdish rights and was succeeded by the Democracy Party (DEP). DEP became divided over the issue of support for the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and six deputies of the party were arrested by the Turkish state and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The party was closed down in 1994 and was succeeded the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) in the same year. HADEP was a moderate Kurdish political party that tried to distance itself from the PKK. Nevertheless, HADEP was closed down due to allegations of political support for the PKK in 2003 and was succeeded by the Democratic Society party (DTP). DTP was also dissolved by the Turkish Constitutional Court in 2008 for promoting Kurdish nationalism and was succeeded by the BDP. The emergence of the Kurdish question is very related to the rise of the revolutionary left in the 1970s. Rather than the Kurdish question being important for the Left, it is the Left that is important for the Kurdish question. Prior to the 1960s, Kurdish ethnicity was severely repressed during both single-party and multi-party rule. It was from the 1960s onwards that Kurdish nationalism re-emerged in Turkey through the contact of Kurdish intellectuals with Marxism and anti-imperialist struggle in the FKF. One could argue that Kurdish nationalism in Turkey has always been a socialist and anti-imperialist ideology. This has also a lot to do with the social organization of Kurdish society. The patriarchal, conservative, clan-based organization of Kurdish society has always profited from maintaining the status quo with the Turkish state and marginalizing any grassroots egalitarian movements. Kurdish nationalism is a rejection of the inequalities created within Kurdish society through clan politics just as much as a rejection of Turkish cultural imperialism. After 1971, the Kurdish movement, just like the radical left, realized that their demands for cultural rights would not be implemented through parliamentary reform. The failure of parliamentary politics after 1971 can be seen as the start of PKK’s armed revolutionary struggle against the Turkish state.

While the representational, parliamentary left is still experiencing an identity crises vis-à-vis the populist, Islamic, neo-liberal politics of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gezi Park protests have contributed to the revitalization of those segments of the radical left that are detached from Kurdish movement. The distancing of the radical left from the Kurdish movement can be attributed to the silence of the BDP over the protests due to ongoing peace negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government. The only BDP MP to take an active stance on the protests, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, has been ostracized and excluded from the team of BDP representatives who are in dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan. This political situation has created the opportunity for the radical left to pursue an independent agenda, perhaps for the first time since 1980.

History of the Radical Left in Turkey

The origins of the revolutionary, non-parliamentary left in Turkey can be traced to the Federation of Debate Clubs (FKF), which was a network of university clubs founded in 1965 by Marxist political science students studying in the various universities of Ankara. By the end of the late 1960s, the federation had expanded to include political science clubs throughout Turkey and had grown into an active platform of debate and dialogue for students active in the Turkish left. The events of 1968 and the ongoing anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Latin America were inspiration for the participants of the FKF and the network eventually began to take a more radical stance as Turkey’s participation in the Cold War and NATO deepened. The FKF evolved into the Turkish Revolutionary Youth Federation (Dev-Genç) in 1969 and decided to take up revolutionary struggle against the Turkish state. After the military coup of 1971, Dev-Genç was banned by the state and continued its revolutionary efforts as an underground, clandestine organization. While Dev-Genç was primarily a student movement, a number of armed groups including People’s Liberation Army of Turkey (THKO), People’s Salvation Party Front of Turkey (THKP-C), the Maoist Revolutionary Workers and Peasants Party of Turkey (TIIKP) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were organized out of Dev-Genç members after the banning of Dev-Genç in 1971. The failure of armed struggle against the Turkish state during the mid to late 1970s meant that the core cadres of the radical Left were either imprisoned or killed. By the end of the 1970s, THKP-C had evolved into the pacifist, legalistic Revolutionary Way (Dev-Yol) from which a splinter group advocating armed struggle, Revolutionary Left (Dev-Sol) emerged in 1978. On the other hand, THKO ceased to exist after the execution of its founding members (Huseyin Inan, Yusuf Aslan, and Deniz Gezmi) in 1972 by military authorities. In southeast Turkey, the PKK took up a protracted armed conflict against the state that has lasted until today. The Turkish Communist Party-Marxist Leninist (TKP-ML) split from the TIIKP in 1972 and the party evolved into a legal political entity, the Workers and Peasants Party of Turkey (TIKP), in 1974. However, after founder Ibrahim Kaypakkaya died in 1973 while under state arrest, the TKP-ML slipped into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army in Turkey (TIKKO), founded in 1972, which advocates armed struggle.

After the coup of 1980, most members of the radical left organizations were either executed or imprisoned by the junta, causing surviving members to either emigrate overseas or to go underground. The harsh political conditions imposed by the military junta combined with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact states and the U.S.S.R created a precarious political situation for the radical Left in Turkey. Most of the surviving factions found themselves marginalized by the PKK and the Kurdish movement. For example, Dev-Sol which, by 1994, had evolved into the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP/C), signed a cooperation agreement with the PKK in 1999, effectively subsuming DHKP/C into the much larger PKK. Factions such as the Kemalist-Maoist TIKP, which became the Worker’s Party (IP) in 1992, managed to stay independent from the PKK by acting as legal political parties but could not achieve electoral success.

By the early 2000s, the radical left in Turkey was in a state of crisis. State prosecution had intensified over the 1990s with the enactment of the anti-terror bill in 1991 and many cadre members found themselves imprisoned with lengthy sentences. This turned prison dormitories into a recruiting ground for the radical left as imprisoned cadre members began to form cells that would be activated upon the completion of the prison sentences. To combat the situation, the Turkish state decided to put prisoners convicted of terrorism and armed struggle in the so-called “F-type” prison which was essentially a form of solitary confinement. The decision to move convicts into solitary confinement caused the inmates in Ankara, Aydin, Bayrampasa, Bartin, Buca, Bursa, Çankın, Çanakkale, Ceyhan, Gebze, Konya-Ermenek, Malatya, Nigde, Nevsehir, and Usak to go on hunger strike during October 2000. In response to the hunger strike, Turkish security forces stormed the prisons in an operation, ironically named “Return to Life”, that resulted in the death of 30 prisoners and two soldiers. The survivors of the operation continued on with the hunger strikes resulting in the further deaths of 48 prisoners and 12 self-immolations. One of the effects of “Return to Life” was that the cadres of the radical Left were drastically diminished. Following this, any survivors of the hunger strike and operation “Return to Life” were put into solidarity confinement, effectively ending the possibility of recruiting new cadre members.

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Protesters gather during a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 9, 2013.

Conclusion: The Other Gezi Park

After years of marginalization, the Gezi Park protests have created an opportunity for the radical left to re-establish itself as a player on the Turkish political scene. On the one hand, the protests pose an unprecedented opportunity for the radical left to reach out to a post-1989 generation, which has no recollection of Communism and radical student movements. On the other hand, the protests have created the opportunity for the radical left to update it’s theory and praxis to accommodate and comprehend the demands of a generation that has just begun to discover politicization. While it is too early to foresee the outcomes created by this cross-pollination between the radical left tradition and the post-1989 generation, what the Gezi Park protests demonstrate is that a collaboration between the two can pose a much more radical threat to the hegemony of the AKP, at a bio-political level, than any representational party currently active in Turkey. Although it is unlikely that Gezi Park will ever translate into a wider political movement, the subjectivities created out of a common experience of police violence, as well as the establishment of new social networks between spheres of society, which have been fragmented and isolated through years of systemic neo-liberalization and consumer culture, are a much greater threat than anything electoral, as they will radically alter the dynamics of Turkish society in the next decade. |P


[1]. Former cadres of TIP went on to found the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in 1996. The ÖDP, which was a coalition from the remaining leftist groups of the pre-1980 period, entered into a coalition with the Green party of Turkey in 2012, forming the Greens and the Left Party of the Future. Additionally, the TKP was re-established by former cadre members who took over the Party for Socialist Power (SIP) in 2001 and renamed it. The politics of the so-called ‘new’ TKP has been described by many as chauvinistic, reactionary, and outdated, with some commentators going so far as to reject the historical lineage between the TKP of the 1920s and the new TKP.

[2]. The TKP has never won any seats in the Turkish parliament. Also, TIP, which was founded in 1961, had much more success in electoral politics. The TIP became the first independent socialist party to enter parliament in 1965.

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