Turkish government hunkers down as world spotlight fades

The wedding celebration of two protesters in Gezi Park was violently broken up by police this weekend – a reminder that neither the protest nor backlash are ebbing.

Ozgur Kaya kisses his bride Nuray Cokol as the newly married couple visit Gezi Park following their wedding ceremony in Istanbul July 20, 2013. Ms. Colok met her husband Mr. Kaya a little over a month ago while volunteering at a medical clinic set up in Gezi park during the most chaotic days of the protest movement that has roiled Turkey since May 31.

With a construction helmet over her veil, Nuray Colok’s wedding attire was fully in keeping with the style of Turkey’s Gezi Park protesters.

She and others who have demonstrated here in the past two months have frequently worn hard hats to guard against flying tear gas canisters fired by police.

In fact, Ms. Colok met her husband Ozgur Kaya a little over a month ago while volunteering at a medical clinic set up in the park during the most chaotic days of the protest movement that has roiled Turkey since May 31.

On their wedding day on Saturday, the couple wore the helmets in humorous reference to the protests, but they did not expect to need them. Then, as several hundred well wishers joined them while they made a celebratory loop of the park, they found themselves being sprayed with tear gas and water cannons. 

“It was not a protest…. What we wanted to do was completely legal,” Mr. Kaya, a documentary maker, told the Monitor, claiming police hit both him and his new wife.

The crackdown on the wedding party was a reminder than even as international media attention on Turkey's protest movement fades, authorities continue to stamp down on demonstrations amid signs that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is swerving further towards the kind of authoritarianism that originally incited them.

Last week, for instance, police in Istanbul carried out the latest in a succession of raids and arrests, searching around 100 addresses and detaining 30 people on accusations of involvement in the protests.

In total, more than 1,000 people have been detained in Istanbul in relation to the unrest, and about three dozen remain behind bars facing criminal charges, according to Fatma Elif Koru of the Istanbul Bar Association.

“Gezi Park has become a milestone in terms of the behavior of the government. It’s much more repressive,” says political commentator Cengiz Candar.

A government crackdown

In recent weeks, prosecutors have launched criminal cases against unionists, architects, engineers, city planners, and doctors who played a role in the unrest. Meanwhile, 12 members of Taksim Solidarity, the umbrella group that evolved to be the main body representing demonstrators, are facing trial on charges relating to the protest.

Five founding members, who include the general secretaries of both Istanbul’s Chamber of Doctors and its Chamber of Architects, face possible seven-year jail terms on charges that include "setting up a criminal organization."

On July 9, governing lawmakers unexpectedly removed the powers of Turkey’s Chambers of Architects and Engineers to oversee the approval of building applications, a move widely interpreted as revenge for their role in the protests. 

Since their foundation in 1969, the chambers were charged with approving these applications, from which they receive the bulk of their income. Under the new law, yet to be implemented, the Urban Planning Ministry will carry out all oversight.

“It’s planned to starve the chambers of their income sources so that they become weaker,” says Tayfun Kahraman, head of Istanbul’s Chamber of Urban Planners. “These changes mean that what is supposed to be a technical process is now politicized. If they go ahead, it will be impossible to speak of a functional planning process.”

In another move widely seen as a reaction to the Gezi protests, Mr. Erdogan vowed earlier this month to place police forces in state universities, replacing private firms that currently handle security.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Journalists’ Union said that at least 22 journalists had been fired and 37 forced to resign mainly as a result of having expressed support for the protests.

“These dismissals and resignations are mostly related to censorship policies followed by some media outlets in dealing with the Gezi Park resistance,” Gokhan Durmus, the union’s Istanbul branch head, told a press conference on Sunday, according to the newspaper Today’s Zaman.

Pointing fingers

The crackdown has been accompanied by a broader battle over the meaning of the protests.

Erdogan has sought to portray those involved as vandals driven by terrorist groups seeking to overthrow the government, which he did again when responding to Saturday’s attempted wedding gathering.

“It was seen that behind [those who went to Gezi Park] for the wedding were members of a terrorist organization, people wearing black masks,” he said on Sunday night, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

Ms. Colok – the bride – says she could "only laugh" when she heard his words on television. “These are just independent people who do not want to follow a leader like sheep. We’re not terrorists and we’re not members of any party.”

Erdogan has also tried to pitch the protests as a conflict between his Justice and Development Party – which he sees as conservative but reform-minded – and its old foes, the ultra-secularist elites who governed Turkey before them.

While this narrative has served to rally Erdogan’s core supporters, it has rung hollow with many Turks beyond his conservative base, says Mr. Candar, the political analyst.

"When such things were underlined between 2005-06 and 2010-11 [during political confrontations between the government and opposition groups] it held water, but not now," he says.

He sees the protests as a "generational event" marking a new departure in Turkish politics, moving beyond the old rifts and "reflecting the sensitivity of civil society for any sort of authoritarian government."

But is the tide changing? 

The unrest has only slightly dented government support, however. A survey published by the Sonar polling organization over the weekend suggested it had dropped around six per cent since demonstrations began, and currently stands at around 44 per cent.

There are also signs that government supporters are growing increasingly angry at the continuing protests.

On July 11, in the latest in a string of similar incidents, a group of men armed with knives and sticks attacked people who gathered in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district to commemorate one of the six protesters who died during the demonstrations.

Soli Ozel, a political analyst and professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, believes Erdogan’s continuing harsh rhetoric towards protesters is exacerbating tensions in Turkish society.

“He’s not going to relent,” predicts Mr. Ozel. “We are supposed to be in a month of peace [for Ramadan], but every day we have one more salvo from him which makes the cleavages in society deeper.”

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