May 14

May Day in Istanbul


This year, the Turkish government did their best to ban May Day in Istanbul by blocking off the traditional meeting ground of Taksim Square with layers of steel barricades and 39,000 riot police in the surrounding area. Last year, Taksim was also officially out of bounds but we had hopes this year that, post-Gezi and amid public anger at increasing government authoritarianism, protesters might succeed in pushing through to the square and exercising their constitutional right to protest there. The police presence proved overwhelming, although there were clashes elsewhere with a reported 40 people hospitalised and around 200 people detained. In the capital, Ankara, there were a reported 141 arrested, and their Taksim equivalent, Kızılay, was also blocked off. The authorities were thoroughly prepared for today’s events.

Below, I have copied Amnesty International’s press release condemning the police action today.

My personal experience started with an expedition with friends across Taksim Square and Gezi Park, which involved elaborate subterfuge. Pretending to be lost tourists, we asked at first to be allowed back to our hotel in Taksim Square, and were eventually ushered past the barricades by a group of frustrated police officers who became tired of fielding our questions. One of them, a plain-clothes officer with a gun tucked casually into the waistband of his jeans, kindly posed for a photo with us and attempted to explain the concept of May Day with hand gestures.

The square was empty and completely silent, lined with row upon row of barricades, bored-looking police and one lonely TV crew reporting in front of the emptiness. For an urban nucleus which usually teams with commuters, tourists, hawkers and traffic at all times of day and night, the silent space was surreal. From there, we made our way across Gezi Park – similarly deserted, with the odd clump of police picnicking and playing cards on the grass. Exactly two years ago, the park and square were full of people marching happily along, singing the usual May Day songs, enjoying their day off work. I do not remember a single incident – I do not even remember much of a police presence (the two are, by now, related). That was back when Taksim Square was a legal place to protest.

We made our way up Cumhurriyet Caddesi, which is the road leading from Taksim to Şişli, where we knew there had been clashes recently. Encountering people wearing hard hats and gas masks walking the other way, we learned that the clashes had moved to Beşiktaş. A friend of mine in the area told me that residents were taking in protesters fleeing the gas, and that police had started going into apartments to track them down, just as they had done during Gezi.

We arrived in Beşiktaş to find a strange kind of stand-off, in which lines of riot police faced football fans and ordinary protesters and street food sellers supplied both sides with refreshment. One was selling raw rhubarb from a cart. At one point, a Fenerbahçe fan lit a flare, and a little later fans joined hands, many of them holding up scarfs on which the faces of the dead Gezi victims were printed. The whole atmosphere, however, was somehow aimless and defeated. People were there to make a point, but the sheer number of police had dampened the Gezi spirit that had seen the same area overrun with protesters last year.

While we lingered, a jaunty May Day song blared out from some unseen speakers near the CHP offices in the square, over and over again, its rabble-rousing message at odds with the inaction. Moving away from the square, we discovered signs of previous clashes – pools of red water from the canons, the occasional canister, the odd pile of stones collected into a haphazard barricade, a bank with its windows and door smashed. Lingering tear gas made everyone splutter, including police. As evening approached, we made our way back towards Taksim along the sun-dappled Dolmabahçe road, which had a vaguely holiday feel, empty of traffic save for the odd opportunistic taxi.

Today made me wonder whether anything like Gezi would ever be possible again, at least under this government. Yes, there was evidence of the same defiance and anger from the public, but the government has learned its lessons from last year – there was no way Taksim Square could have been properly accessed given the police presence and barricades. Physical boundaries like that are important, and significantly affect public morale. Taksim is an important, symbolic place of traditional protest in Istanbul, and the government know that – hence the ban. They are taking no chances, and they certainly won’t take any notice of statements of condemnation such as the one below:


1 May 2014

Turkey: Riot police in reprehensible crackdown on peaceful May Day protest

The use of tear gas and water cannon against peaceful protesters today by police in Istanbul is a reprehensible move to crack down on free expression and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said.
Riot police sealed off the whole of central Istanbul near Taksim Square to ensure that no protesters made it to a peaceful demonstration planned there to mark May Day.

“A peaceful march this morning was cut off by a human wall of riot police blocking the main access road from Şişli into Taksim Square, the epicentre of last year’s Gezi Park protests,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey expert, who witnessed the events first-hand.

“In a repeat of the abusive tactics that have sadly become the Turkish authorities’ stock response to peaceful protests, tear gas and water cannon were fired to disperse the crowd assembled there. 

“Police sealed off the entire area, with one riot police officer on the roadblock remarking: ‘No people, no problems’. The Istanbul Governor had justified the ban on the grounds that it would disrupt traffic and tourism – then sealed off the area to everyone. What should have been a lively peaceful protest in the square has been denied – one more nail in the coffin of freedom of expression and assembly in Turkey.”

After several years of peaceful large-scale May Day celebrations in Taksim taking place with the approval of the Turkish authorities, in 2013 they refused to allow demonstrations to take place and police prevented and dispersed peaceful protesters with abusive force. This year, a reported 39,000 police officers and 50 water cannon trucks were drafted in as the authorities refused to allow demonstrations to take place.

With scant warning, police today used tear gas and water cannon against a crowd of several thousand people peacefully assembled close to the DÝSK union confederation building in the Şişli district. The scene was a carbon copy of the abusive force against trade unionists in 2008, found by the European Court of Human rights to violate their right to peaceful protest in the case of Disk and Kesk vs. Turkey.

On occasions when the authorities have allowed May Day rallies to take place in Taksim Square, they have passed peacefully and without injuries or damage to property. On occasions where the authorities have refused permission for Taksim May Day rallies to take place, they have resulted in the use of abusive force by police against demonstrators, injuries and major disruption across the city. This year has proved to be no different.”

Photo above via Selin Asker for Reuters

Apr 14

Berkin Elvan Protest on Children’s Day

berkin protest

Today is Çocuk Bayramı in Turkey, or Children’s Day. It is a national holiday – offices are closed, flags unfurled, sweets dispersed and official events held to celebrate children and their place in the Turkish bosom.

The footage below is of one such event in Istanbul, at which three children protest the killing of 15 year old Berkin Elvan. Berkin was 14 when he was shot by a tear gas canister fired by police last year during the Gezi protests, and died in a coma last month. The children shout “Berkin Elvan won’t be forgotten” and are swiftly carried off by police, their mouths muffled, while journalists are waved away. Meanwhile, the ceremony continues unabated, and two of the children are now in custody.

Photo and footage from the Doğan News Agency

Apr 14

Turkish Feminists: Fighting Macho Legs and Pink Buses


As reported in the New York Times last week, women in Turkey are fighting the invasion of their personal space on public transport. The Twitter topics #bacaklarinitopla (“keep your legs to yourself”) and #yerimisgaletme (“don’t invade my personal space”) have been trending over the weekend, accompanied by a variety of damning evidence: photographs of men sitting with their legs akimbo, awkwardly squashing adjacent female passengers. These photographs strike a chord with anyone (male or female, I should add) who has ever been inconvenienced by this most obnoxiously macho of poses on public transport in any city.

What is interesting about the problem of men and women rubbing shoulders or knees in Turkey is the puritanical angle; a couple of years ago, the Islamic political party Saadet campaigned to introduce pink buses in Istanbul exclusively for women. This is such a stupid idea, for so many obvious reasons, that I cringe from listing them but here goes:

Women should not need a pink bus. We should not need a bus of any particular colour. The problem lies with passengers who insist on exercising their capacity for spreading their legs, a capacity sadly not shared by respectable women in public. “Solving” the problem by laying on a psychedelic, infantilised bus service for women is insulting and totally misses the point; the stipulated pink is the offensively saccharine icing on the cake.

The annoyances of commuting in big cities are universal and myriad. There are obvious ways of getting round them, of varying levels of success – on a smelly bus, we open a window. On the metro/tube we collectively glare at passengers with loud headphones. In a dolmuş (a Turkish shared taxi-minibus, its name literally meaning “stuffed” because it is usually full to bursting point), it is an unspoken convention that women share one row (usually the back) and men share the other(s), in this most intimate of public conveyances.

The dolmuş example is significant, because it is an acknowledgment of the tendency to segregate male and female passengers in Turkey, even if informally. Who feels more comfortable for it, the men or the women? I would argue the women, many of whom might be devout Muslims who would not feel comfortable sitting squashed up next to a strange man – either in principle, or in practice. Muslim men might feel equally awkward. Fair enough. We do not all ascribe to religious scruples, but I for one would choose to be squashed next to a women rather than a man. The dolmuş system is not unfair, if we overlook for the moment the significance of women taking the “back seat”. What’s more, it protects us from the leg-splayers, a luxury we do not enjoy on the metro, and hand-wanderers.

The difference between the informal segregation of the dolmuş and the strategic introduction of a special pink Ladies’ Bus is clear. The former is natural for a country with a largely conservative population and a laissez-faire form of public transport. The latter is not only offensive but worrying, because it opens the way for endorsed segregation, more artificial, po-faced and inauthentic “protection” for Turkish women, many of whom are routinely beaten by their husbands and ignored by the authorities. It makes women the problem.

Lastly, I can’t help thinking that the magical pink bus, ostensibly a service laid on for women, is in fact a service for men – it makes me think of the segregation in mosques, where women sit in a smaller section at the back so as not to sexually distract praying men.

Perhaps Twitter has got it right – a popular, light-hearted but heartfelt campaign to embarrass repeat offenders on public transport might be just the ticket for change that we need.


Apr 14

A Ballot Monitor’s Tale

A woman casts her ballot inside a polling station during municipal elections in Istanbul

Deniz Derviş volunteered on Sunday as a ballot monitor in Okmeydanı, Istanbul. I interviewed him about his experience and his views on the elections – whether they were conducted fairly, what they show about the current state of the country and what they spell for the future…

“I volunteered as a monitor in Okmeydanı [a poor, mixed district of Istanbul which was the site of the Berkin Elvan funeral protests three weeks ago]. The ballot box I monitored had 120 AKP votes, 95 CHP [main opposition] and 53 HDP [leftist, pro-Kurdish opposition], while the ballot box containing my vote had 245 CHP and 25 AKP votes.

Yes, there may well have been vote rigging during these elections, in particular in Ankara. But I don’t think the total rigged votes could exceed 1% for the whole country. So we are faced with the fact that after Gezi and the 17th December corruption tapes at least 40% of people are still happy with the AKP. We should also note that the voter-turnout was 90%, whereas it was 85% in 2009. Erdoğan mobilized his voters by spouting nationalistic madness to secure his few percent above 40%; if he had less than 40%, it could be considered a decline in his votes.

So if you ask what is next: the first thing that we must do is stop expecting any help from the cemaat [Gülenist community] or any other actor, and stop hoping for opposition alliances (e.g. CHP-MHP (Nationalist People’s Party, the 2nd biggest opposition)) or any tapes that could shake the AKP. The only time the AKP were afraid was during Gezi. Erdoğan’s biggest fear, I think, is that his voters and dissenters start to empathise with each other. The tape that revealed his fears was the one in which he said to the then- Interior Minister in June: “Don’t let this be another Tekel resistance.”
[In December 2009 the AKP government privatized the state monopoly alcohol company Tekel and sacked 12,000 workers, who occupied a central park in Ankara in freezing conditions for over a month. These workers were widely supported by the community and the strike proved deeply embarrassing for the government.]
“During the Tekel resistance, there was huge societal empathy for those workers, so the government tried to humiliate the workers on the media before police brutally broke up the protests.

There are two winners in these elections, the AKP and the HDP/BDP (the pro-Kurdish party, aligned with the HDP). The main reason behind their success is that they do not change their course to get more votes. They both have their own consistent ways of thinking (of course there are some temporary or local differentiation from time to time) But the CHP [main opposition party] was socialist during the Gezi protests, capitalist with the TUSİAD [organization of the most powerful Turkish businessmen] and grey wolf [militant youth nationalist] in Ankara – the current CHP candidate for Ankara, for example, previously represented the MHP. They say they are social democrats, but they try to reassure their nationalist base by not supporting peace with Kurds.

The AKP and HDP/BDP are not shaping themselves but shaping their supporters. They started as radical groups and they became mass powers. They both get votes from the working class, from the poor. Kurds are one of the poorest social groups and the south eastern region of Turkey, which is densely Kurdish, is the poorest region in the country. In Istanbul, AKP gets votes from poor and crowded suburbs whereas the CHP has over 7%0 votes in rich coastal districts. It is normally expected that poor will support social democrats, but it is the opposite in Turkey.

But since the fall of the social democrats in the 1994 elections, the CHP has been shaping itself according to daily politics. Just imagine: six months ago, there is no way the CHP could have made an alliance with the [Gülenist] cemaat. Now it is the no. 1 party for the cemaat. If you had lived in Turkey during the 90s you would not have believed that the CHP and MHP could make an alliance (there is still no formal alliance between the parties, but there is a strategic alliance between voters). So, parties that are patient and grounded in their basic ideologies are winning. The CHP has not been doing this for a long time, in fact the CHP has not had an ideology for a long time.

Being an elections observer is tiring but very instructive: you can easily see that society is divided into half, not ideologically but merely socially and economically. Most people do not think their freedom is oppressed and feel safe in many ways under AKP rule. And yet many people feel threatened by a quasi-fascist government.

So what should we do? There is no obvious solution, so we have to make one and stop being critical – we have to rescue this country’s working class from the monopoly of the AKP and find a way to live together with Kurds and other minorities. A new constitution is desperately needed because the current social contract won’t held the country together for long.”

Photo above by Murad Sezer for Reuters

Apr 14

Post-elections update: Vote stealing scandal in Ankara

sleeping ballots

Following the municipal elections on Sunday, Ankara has been the scene of an extraordinary backlash against electoral fraud. On Sunday evening, Melih Gökçek, the AKP mayor who has held his seat for 25 years, claimed victory with 95% of the votes counted. The news then emerged that hundreds of thousands of the CHP (main opposition) votes had not been counted or had been transferred to other parties – it seems that numbers entered into the electoral computer system did not tally with the physical ballot papers. Bags of ballots were found binned in the vicinity of the polling centres (mainly schools), and after photographs had circulated on social media, over a thousand volunteers went to track them down and guard the remaining ballots until morning. Cheering images of people wrapped in blankets, asleep, with their arms around sacks of ballots have been circulating illicitly on Twitter (see above). Further confusion was caused by a widespread blackout in the early hours of this morning – the Energy Minister responded to outrage and claims that further electoral foul play had been conducted under cover of darkness by saying a cat had got into a power substation and tampered with the electricity flow.

As I write (15.30 GMT Tuesday), the CHP has lodged a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) and hundreds of people are protesting outside the council headquarters in Ankara, despite heavy police intervention. Gökçek, the self-proclaimed victor, has vacillated between accusing the CHP and Gülenists of planning provocations and claiming that, if there has been a “mistake” with the vote counting, the blame lies not with him but with the YSK.

There is some concern that the results of the elections will be officially announced tomorrow at around the same time that the CHP’s complaint is processed by the Supreme Electoral Council, meaning that it could be too late to challenge the result.

Unfortunately, as a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter earlier today, this latest fiasco will fit into Erodgan’s victory speech rhetoric of opposition provocation, foreign plots and “dirty politics”. No matter that the dirty politics appears to be emanating very much from AKP home ground – the millions of Turks who will hear this news on pro-government media news channels across the land will hear it warped and twisted against itself: a perfect example of Erdogan’s special brand of moonshine.

Photo above from Hurriyet News.

Mar 14

Why the Corruption Tapes Don’t Matter: Turkey’s Problem

In recent months, the Turkish government has weathered an epic corruption scandal. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been at the centre of it, rebutting all charges and denouncing his accusers in front of cheering crowds. In any European country, he would not have lasted five minutes.

Imagine David Cameron dismissing multiple phone conversations in which he is heard apparently rigging tenders as “dubbed montages”. Imagine him admitting freely to conversations in which he bullies Rupert Murdoch into printing exclusively pro-Conservative news stories, describing this as “advising the media, as a Prime Minister is meant to do”. Imagine him quashing an investigation into corruption claims by firing everyone involved. Now imagine him painting himself the victim of a foreign coup attempt, the phone tapes its evil currency. Imagine that he is believed by millions of people, adored and respected as an invincible leader, come what may.

The above scenario is difficult to imagine because there is a common consensus in Britain that politicians are accountable for their actions and subject to the law. British politicians are rarely revered, and usually in retrospect (Churchill springs to mind). While they are in power, they have a rough time even from their own party. Leadership is not an easy ride.

In Turkey, leadership is the ride of a lifetime – literally. If you manage to convince enough of the population that you are powerful, and that you are on their side, they love you forever. You are exalted, a demi-god with apparently limitless authority, and you want to keep it that way. Of course, it would be an injustice not to mention the millions of Turks who do not subscribe to this form of government. They despair of the politicians currently in power; we saw millions of them during the Gezi protests, and we hear their views passionately expressed in (some) mainstream and social media. Unfortunately, they are not in the majority.

You only have to talk to Erdoğan’s supporters in Turkey to realise the extraordinary power this man has over those whose lives he has made better, those who see him as a personal benefactor. Yes, in the past decade of AKP rule, public services have improved, roads have been built, hospitals modernised. In many countries, these would be seen as much-needed reforms – any mainstream party would put them top of their agenda. In Turkey, they are seen as achievements of such unprecedented magnificence and beneficence that the religious working class will be grateful forever. Turks’ expectations of politicians are so low, unfortunately, that Erdoğan is a miracle-worker. He is “The Grand Master” and he can do no wrong.

I didn’t quite appreciate the strength of these pro-Erdoğan feelings until I tested them myself. For some time after the phone tapes started circulating on the internet, I thought: “People must not have heard them. The tapes are not on the news – it must be that. Otherwise there would be a nationwide outcry.”

So I went with laptop in hand to my local tailor, a devout and intelligent man in his sixties called Yahya, who is a staunch supporter of the AKP. I knew he had not heard the tapes. Our conversation went as follows:

– I’ve got the tapes here – do you want to listen to them?
– I’m not really interested.
– But you could decide for yourself whether they sound fake or not.
– I know they’re fake.
– Really? How?
– That man in America makes them all up!
– Do you mean Fetullah Gülen [Erdoğan’s one-time ally, now adversary]?
– Yes, but I won’t say his name anymore. Not after what he has done.
– OK – but just listen to the tapes and see for yourself.
– Why? Even if I heard these conversations with my own ears, I wouldn’t believe them. Even if I saw him stealing with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.

This last sentence floored me. How do you argue with a man who trusts his prime minister more than he trusts the evidence of his own eyes and ears? If news channels were permitted to play these tapes (which they’re not), if nothing but these tapes played from morning til night on every news channel in the land, Yahya the tailor would remain unmoved.

His assistant, Mehmet Ali, shed further light on the matter when he entertained the hypothesis that the corruption claims might be true.

“Even if they are true, he will be called to account in the afterlife. It is not for us to judge him, but Allah.”

This kind of view reflects the status of Erdoğan as a demi-god in Turkey, a man who remains above mortal laws, a man whose overt religiosity convinces his followers that he has God on his side. For me, this was a profoundly depressing realisation, and it has made me reassess the future of the country and wonder how long it will be until road-building and personal charisma are not lifelong tickets to power. For the moment, however, they are. Accusations of corruption and authoritarianism may taint Erdoğan’s image abroad, but for many in Turkey, he remains above reproach.

In the words of MC Hammer: “You can’t touch this.”

Mar 14

Ahmet Misbah Demircan, the Pied Piper of Beyoğlu


A deafening AKP campaign cavalcade just passed through my street in Gümüşsuyu, Beyoğlu – a heartland of CHP (opposition) support. Intrigued, I followed it to find a huge crowd of men and women wearing orange AKP scarfs and carrying red carnations following two vans blaring out the campaign song. The AKP incumbent for Beyoglu, Ahmet Misbah Demircan himself led the way, like a silver-haired political Pied Piper, stopping occasionally to throw carnations into the air and pass them to bemused residents and shop keepers.

Footage below. First film shows from afar an enraged resident shouting from his window at the procession – “Stop that ****ing noise!” The next drama is the van getting stuck at a sharp turn.

The second film shows Demircan throwing carnations at a man who fails to catch them, and then going into a shop to pay his personal respects. Lackeys with armfuls of carnations stand at the ready to re-load his arsenal. Someone in the procession asks me why I’m filming and I reassure him that I am merely interested.

This procession shows just how determined the AKP is to win over as many people as possible, even in areas that are unlikely to vote for them. The AKP heartlands in Beyoglu are places like Kasımpaşa and Tophane, not middle class areas like Gümüşsuyu. Extraordinary persistence.