When asked if he ever expected a small protest against the destruction of an Istanbul park to morph into some of the biggest anti-government demonstrations to hit Turkey in a decade, Imre Azem laughs and shakes his head.
“We were hoping that maybe 50 people would join us,” says the 37-year-old filmmaker, who was among the original 10 activists who pitched their tents in the city’s central Gezi Park on the night of May 27.
Nor does he think it’s a simple case of chance that this is what sparked the monumental outcry.
"It's at the heart of these protests," says Mr. Azem. "In general the AKP [Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party] has operated over the past 10 years not by negotiating and convincing people but by imposing its will. It’s not just urban issues, it is also the alcohol ban, interference in lifestyle... In Gezi Park two weeks ago we said 'stop.'"
For many of the thousands of Istanbullites who are now flocking to the park in protest, the project to redevelop it along with the adjacent Taksim Square epitomize a government culture that routinely disregards the rights and wishes of citizens.
“Our prime minister goes to sleep, dreams, and then wakes up in the morning and tells us we will do this project here and that project there,” says Cihan Uzuncarsili Baysal, a political scientist and member of Urban Movements Istanbul, one of the groups opposing the project.
No public space, no public discontent?
Istanbul's mayor said this weekend that the plan for a replica of Ottoman-era artillery barracks to house shops, hotels, and apartments will now no longer include a shopping mall, but instead a military museum. The concession has failed to appease demonstrators and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted the overall Gezi Park plan will still go ahead.
“Our Taksim project is a plan that unites history and nature. And this project will produce a very beautiful environment in Istanbul,” he insisted on June 6.
For Sirri Sureyye Onder, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party and a key figure in the campaign to save Gezi Park, the project is an attempt to neuter a place that has long been a focus for protests. Takswim is the traditional rallying place for annual Labor Day demonstrations on May 1, and on May Day 1977, the square was the scene of a massacre when an unidentified gunman opened fire on leftist demonstrators.
“Since the AKP came into power in Turkey, they have always tried to get people away from the squares.”
It is also part of a wider government policy of repurposing public or communal spaces to maximize private gain, he believes.
“Their main aim is to provide a ‘more expensive’ Taksim Square where the government and [corporations] can make a greater profit,” he says.
The contract for the Gezi Park project has yet to be awarded, but it is likely to go to one of a coterie of favored development companies known to have close but informal ties with the government that win the vast majority of tenders.
These include Calik Holding, currently demolishing and gentrifying the nearby neighborhood of Tarlabasi, a vibrant but ramshackle community home to vulnerable minority groups. Similar overhauls are happening throughout Turkey. Calik’s CEO is Erdogan's son-in-law.
Meanwhile the events leading up to the Gezi Park protests show government and developers’ disregard for statutory process designed to safeguard against inappropriate development. Istanbul's Chambers of Urban Planner, Architects, and Engineers, challenged the project on the grounds that it contravened laws relating to the preservation of cultural and natural heritage.
And a bidding process for the contract to build the underground road tunnels for the Taksim project was held, even as legal challenges against it continued, says Akif Burak Atlar, secretary general of Istanbul’s independent Chamber of Urban Planners.
“When the prime minister declared he had a plan for Taksim Square during the 2011 elections we made a legal objection and went to the courts. The legal process was still going on, so making a tender for the project was wrong,” he says.
Similar problems surround the plans to recreate the Topcu barracks. In January, a cultural preservation board, independent of the government and created to regulate improper development, canceled the project on the grounds that it did not "serve the public interest."
However Erdogan quickly vowed: “We will reject the rejection.”
On May 1, a higher and supposedly independent cultural protection board, overturned the cancellation, a ruling Azem and others claim was illegitimate and influenced by the government. A court has since announced a temporary halt, but Erdogan has repeatedly vowed it will go ahead.
The project is among a raft of others pushed through by the government. They include the construction, recently begun, of a third Bosphorus bridge, a project that will involve cutting down several million trees north of the city. The government says that the bridge would ease the city's debilitating traffic, but its construction is also expected to trigger a wave of development in the forest to the north of the city that critics say would cancel out any relief.
They also include the destruction of a historic cinema on Istiklal street, near Taksim, to make way for a shopping mall, and the demolition of several traditional neighborhoods in the center of the city so that they could be redeveloped for luxury homes, their former inhabitants shunted to the city’s fringes.
“These are the memory spaces of the city, and they are destroying them. I am very much afraid that in five years time I will go around Istanbul not recognizing my own city,” says Baysal.
What kind of democracy do they want?
For Azem, resisting the Gezi Park project is a step towards Turkey developing a more sophisticated definition of democracy.
“If we take a vote and 99 percent vote to demolish my house, in a majoritarian-based democracy they can do it. But in a rights-based democracy they can’t do it,” he says.
The government mentioned these development projects regularly during its successful campaign for reelection, but there is no polling data to indicate how broad the support and opposition for such projects are. However, a lack of green space in the center of the city has become an increasingly contentious issue. Only 1.5 percent of Istanbul is devoted to green space, compared to 14 percent of New York City, and 38 percent of London.
“We have a right to this park as the people of Istanbul, and by fighting for it, we are building a truer democracy,” says Azem.