In the early evening of June 15, armed with tear gas and water canons, police forces bulldozed their way into Gezi Park in Istanbul Turkey. They ended the occupation that had started at the end of May and made the park a focus and symbol of nationwide protests.
What followed were intense clashes, leading to a night that resembled “a battle scene,” in the words of the Chairwoman of the German Green party, Claudia Roth, who was trapped in the ensuing chaos.
The intensity of the confrontations immediately mobilized Seattle’s Turkish community. There were two demonstrations in downtown Seattle, and several roundtables were organized to express support and solidarity with the Gezi Park movement and to discuss its implications.
It is very likely that the demonstrations and clashes in Turkey will peter out in the coming days, but this relative quiet will not signal the resolution of the problems that led to this confrontation in the first place.
Behind the brutal crackdown by the police lies a deep division whose origins go back to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Today, on one side of this division, stands the ruling Justice and Development Party, its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan and approximately half of Turkey’s electorate. In the general elections that were held in 2002, 2007 and 2011, the JDP won comfortable and growing majorities in the parliament, allowing it to rule for more than 10 years without having to consult or enter into coalitions with any other party or civil society group.
JDP originated from Islamist politics, but it is wrong to think of its rise as a victory for Islamism in Turkey. The key force behind JDP’s success is a new group of entrepreneurs who took advantage of the opportunities that were opened up for Turkey in the global economy in the aftermath of the cold war.
Unlike the older group of industrialists who were concentrated around Turkey’s several large cities, these new capitalists come from the provincial centers and small towns. They combine an economic vision that is liberal and externally oriented with a deeply conservative and religious social vision. This new class of industrialists has been very successful the past 10 years, and they constitute the engine behind Turkey’s recent economic expansion.
JDP’s constituency also includes people in rural areas, small towns and the millions who have moved to Istanbul and other big cities in recent decades. Many of these groups have seen new opportunities open up for them in the booming economy of Turkey in recent years. They have also benefited from the redistributive schemes that are engineered by the government. Most importantly, they share a conservative and religious outlook with JDP and its leaders. They come from the same social and educational background as JDP leadership, and the Prime Minister’s manner of speech and the way he reacts to things is very familiar to them.
In addition to their social and cultural outlook, these groups also share the historical experience of having been excluded from power in Turkey until the first JDP victory in 2002. They felt that the avenues of social mobility and economic and other opportunities were closed to them for most of the past 80 years
The other side of Turkey’s divide is much more heterogeneous. Environmentalists, secular elites, ultranationalists, feminists, Kurds, non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, leftist unions, students, artists, intellectuals, football fans and a variety of other groups joined forces and supported the demonstrations that started in Gezi Park and spread to other parts of Istanbul and the country. This is a discordant body that will be hard to hold together because other than their dislike of Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan, they have little in common.
With his popularity and political power, ErdoÄan could have done a lot more in healing Turkey’s divisions. Instead, he has taken an increasingly divisive and authoritarian route, which has made matters worse.
One element of hope that comes out of the last three weeks of events in Turkey is the role the youth has been playing in the actual demonstrations. The politics this most numerous and vibrant segment of the population represents is expansive, courageous, dynamic and imaginative. They are demonstrating for a more responsive government and a more open, inclusive and tolerant society. As such they defy old political categories.
Within days of the clashes in Istanbul, a group of Turkish students at the University of Washington organized a roundtable that clearly demonstrated these qualities. This new youth activism in and outside of Turkey may very well be the only hope in the eventual healing of the rift that has divided the Turkish society for most of its history.
Resat Kasaba is the Stanley D. Golub Chair and director of the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.