“Peasants” and “Plunderers”: Rhetoric of Political Exclusion in Turkey

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ramazan Hakki Oztan

University of Utah

Gezi Park, which was the original locus of demonstrations that have spread across Turkey, has long served as the spatial center of political struggles throughout Ottoman and Turkish history. Once standing in its stead were the Ottoman artillery barracks, built in early 1800s, which were the initial manifestation of a long process of Ottoman modernization that did not go forward without generating its own cadre of vocal critics during the course of the nineteenth century. The barracks then became the site of the counterrevolution of 1909 that developed vis-à-vis the Young Turk/CUP revolutionaries who toppled the autocratic regime of the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II a year earlier. Often framed as reactionaries, the counterrevolutionaries of 1909 were the amalgam of diverse factions from Ottoman society who were disaffected by the CUP policies of bureaucratic purges and its secular language of reform. While the counterrevolutionaries were decisively crushed in nine days by the CUP’s show of military prowess, the barracks were demolished in 1940 under the Turkish Republican regime and replaced by Gezi Park as part of the broader vision for the development of Taksim Square.

The complexity of this history of urban space lays in the political culture it has come to signify. Those who chanted the slogans of liberty and equality in 1908 while toppling the autocratic regime of Abdulhamid II later resorted to the same tactics of political intimidation, assassinations and heavy-handed rule that characterized their preceding authoritarian modernizers. Similarly, current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan showcased a remarkable political rhetoric of equality and justice at the initial stages of his leadership. But during his last term in office he emerged as the single strongest man in his Justice and Development Party (JDP), and his rhetoric became increasingly polarizing, patronizing and patriarchal, with an aversion to criticism and a marked intolerance of lifestyles unknown to him or to his electoral base.

Thus, in Turkey the line between liberty and authoritarianism has historically run thin, be it in the establishment circles or among those who challenge it. While the people who have utilized the historic site of Gezi Park to voice their grievances have hailed from different political groups, there was only one constant to this larger story: the persistence of political exclusion and repression as the leitmotif of Turkish politics. Narratives and memories may change over time, and the victors of today may turn into the losers tomorrow, but the contentious politics in Turkey that we see today are unfortunately unraveling towards the same direction of strengthening the language of exclusion.

One political discourse common to the cadres and supporters of today’s main opposition parties in Turkey, as well as shared by some of those who have in the past fifteen days been out on the streets of Istanbul and other provincial cities across Turkey fighting against the brutal police crackdown, is that Erdogan’s ruling JDP has swept the national and local elections during his term by handing out essential goods to the Turkish electorate such as coal, flour, sugar, rice and pasta. When Erdogan organized counter meetings in mid-June in Ankara and Istanbul, a similar discourse of political exclusion was at play, since the protesters tried to frame the pro-Erdogan crowd as a bunch who just showed up at his meetings merely for few hundred liras.

Such theories utilized to explain Erdogan’s repetitive victories in the elections and popularity in the political arena resurfaced in one form or another during the course of the protests, often amounting to a sheer repudiation of those who voted Erdogan into the office. As an extension of this logic, for instance, Ersin Kalaycioglu, an esteemed political scientist in Turkey, framed those who voted for Erdogan as “uncultured peasants” on the pages of the New York Times, complaining that the city of Istanbul had been “invaded” by them in the span of his lifetime (June 2).

The same day Kalaycioglu’s remarks went to print, Erdogan infamously framed the protesters as “çapulcu,” (ie ‘plunderer’ or ‘vagrant’), noting that he would not seek their permission to carry out the construction projects in the Taksim Square he had long envisioned, a scheme that included the construction of a mosque, an opera house and a replica of the long-gone Ottoman era military barracks. In this sense, the Turkish prime minister reduced the protesters’ actions and demands to a mere popular opposition to his developmentalist visions that, in his mind, have benefited the nation for the past ten years. Even when the prime minister held talks with the representatives of the protesters half a month after the initial unrest, the talks continued to center on the future of Gezi Park, eventually leading him to announce that he would respect the legal ruling against the project. Yet it is not a stretch to think that, to Erdogan, the protesters represent marginal groups in the service of domestic political opposition and foreign political interests, blocking his vision for a more modern and prosperous Turkey. With each passing day, Erdogan developed an increasingly polarizing and divisive rhetoric that infuriated the protesters.

The inability on the part of the opposition, whether in passive resistance or out on the street, to understand Erdogan’s political success and appeal to the broader populations is a good contrast to the admitted inability of Erdogan (June 14) to make sense of why the protesters poured out into the streets, and what they have been demanding in the first place. Yet until each side solves their own puzzle and puts an end to polarizing remarks such as “peasants” or “plunderers” — phrases that designate the self-righteous boundaries of political inclusion and exclusion — Istanbul will continue to be the spatial ground of larger political skirmishes for a long time to come, as it has in the past few centuries. Unless meaningful and sincere transformation of the language of political exclusion takes place, Erdogan will continue to face further challenges to his rule despite his attempts, whether successful or abortive in the short term, to co-opt the protesters by exploiting their internal divisions or through harsh police violence.

At the heart of the initial Gezi Park demonstrations lay the issue of environmentalist grievances against the encroaching influences of neoliberal policies spearheaded by Erdogan’s government. It is true that various political factions latched onto the momentum of the contentious politics that centered around Gezi Park, including anti-capitalist Islamists, secular and Kemalist Turks, conservative nationalists, Kurdish activists, liberals and diverse leftist factions, each rallying in support for their own causes and reading their agendas into the events as they unfolded, even as all remained firm in their opposition to Erdogan. As attested by such diverse participation, few protests would fit into the theories of new social movements as perfectly as did the Gezi Park demonstrations. The protests lacked leadership, vision, and organizational structure and coherence, at least at its initial stages, thus illustrating more of a grass-root activism in a civil sphere than an institutional one, with socio-cultural issues and values more at the forefront than economic or political demands informed by ideology. Suspicious of institutional frameworks of politics, the grievances expressed in the Gezi Park demonstrations accordingly reflected growing concerns over “lifestyles” and “values” that Erdogan’s rule threw into danger.

Sukru Kucuksahin, a columnist for Hurriyet Daily, aptly declared on NTV (a national television channel in Turkey that initially refused to broadcast live coverage of the police assaults on protesters) that Erdogan should not “interfere in his living room, kitchen, and bedroom.” Erdogan has indeed been extremely vocal and active in the past few years about developing educational and social policies geared towards creating a more “pious youth.” Accordingly, he has pushed for restrictions on abortion while telling Turkish couples to have at least three children, initiated reforms that targeted a more marked presence of religion in secondary education and most recently passed regulations of alcohol sale and consumption.

While some supporters of Erdogan have certainly appreciated such policies, a certain segment of younger generations in Turkey thoroughly detest them. Ironically, however, the latter are those who grew up under Erdogan’s 10 year-long rule, during which they had actually benefited from the socio-economic mobility that Erdogan’s unwavering economic liberalization accorded them. Thus, the grass-root political activism that characterizes other post-industrial societies in the West, with social and cultural agendas focusing on environmental and ecological preservation, LGBT issues of recognition, and women’s rights — all in all issues of lifestyles — will increasingly continue to challenge the authoritarian neoliberalism of Erdogan as long as he pushes for more economic liberalization.

Doomed to face the consequences of a neoliberal, consumerist and post-industrial society in his own backyard, Erdogan could develop a more complacent and sincere vocabulary of political engagement with the Turkish youth and change the way he handles public demonstrations or else runs the risk of turning into yet another oppressive ruler in the region, with a tarnished image and questioned legitimacy at home and abroad.

As for the protesters who demand protection of their lifestyles and values, the real challenge lay in the development of a political platform that could, perhaps for the first time, articulate a coherent political vision that might counter Erdogan without assaulting the rationality of the Turkish electorate — one that could thus appeal to the large social segments in Turkey by promising similar economic comfort and political stability. It is through this transformation of the political culture and language of exclusion and inclusion that the real goal of protecting the plurality of lifestyles in post-industrial Turkish society could be accomplished, with or without Erdogan.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top