The Protest Is Over—But Its Politics Remain

Ten years later, the Gezi Park protests continue to shape Turkish politics.

On May 31, 2023, a gathering of activists took place in Taksim, Istanbul, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. Among the participants were the recently elected members of parliament from the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP). Chanting familiar slogans—such as “Everywhere Taksim, Everywhere Resistance”—the group was met with police intervention, leading to the arrest of 59 individuals. Apparently, even commemorating these decade-ago protests threatens the government.

The 2013 Gezi Park protests continue to significantly shape Turkish politics. They sparked a remarkable surge in civil society engagement and political activism, breaking through societal segments and challenging the traditional confines of party politics. The protests played a pivotal role in providing a platform for political socialization, particularly for the youth, who grew up in a deliberately depoliticized society. The collective experience, both online and offline, enabled citizens—to the extent that the competitive authoritarian regime allowed—to actively voice their concerns.

The result was the emergence of diverse, self-organized local networks of political activism, from neighborhood assemblies, forums, squats, and cooperatives to election monitoring initiatives and citizen journalism networks. Such initiatives are integral to the legacy of the Gezi protests, because they mobilized a new generation and nurtured innovative strategies for collective action and political participation. And this new politicization extended into the 2023 elections, even though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the runoff on May 28, 2023, won an unprecedented fifth term (his third term as president) with 52 percent of the vote.

The Gezi Park protests still stand out as one of the largest protest cycles in modern Turkey, spanning 80 out of 81 provinces, drawing over three and a half million people to the streets (mostly in the three biggest cities). Moreover, they marked the first occasion when a broad coalition—including, but not limited to, nationalists, environmentalists, feminists, trade unionists, secular Kemalists, anticapitalist Muslims, and fan clubs of main soccer clubs—utilized injustice frames to articulate their demands. They called for the cancellation of the Taksim area urban development project (which had sparked the initial protest), the dismissal of the governors and heads of the police departments of Istanbul, Ankara, and Hatay (who were deemed responsible for the harsh police intervention against the protesters), and the cessation of the use of tear gas by police. Although unrealized, the protesters’ demands shed light on the neoliberal authoritarian policies pursued by the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and appealed to the aggrieved public, mostly the educated youth and urban populations.

These 2013 protests sparked a fresh wave of political activism and civic engagement in Turkey over the next decade. In creating a platform for different groups to make their grievances and demands more visible to one another, the Gezi Park protests fueled the search for alliances in fighting against increasingly authoritarian policies. Questioning the state-centric, security-oriented narrative, participants and supporters continue to champion democratic reforms and social justice, providing momentum to ongoing activism, grassroots movements, and civil society initiatives. The continuing protests at Boğaziçi University; the recent mobilizations by feminist and LGBTQ+ movements following the government’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention; the high levels of social mobilization during the 2023 elections: all are thanks, in part, to the Gezi protests.

The influence of the Gezi legacy also manifested in the composition of party lists during the May 2023 parliamentary elections. One striking instance is the case of Can Atalay, a human rights lawyer, activist, and member of the Taksim Solidarity group.

In April 2022, Atalay, along with six others, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by an Istanbul court, on allegedly unlawful charges of aiding a coup attempt alongside the Gezi Park protests. To secure his release, a strategic move was made based on the 83rd article of the constitution. He was nominated as a candidate for parliament from the TİP (Turkish Workers’ Party) and won a seat in the May 14 parliamentary elections. However, despite gaining parliamentary immunity, Atalay has yet to be released. During the oath-taking ceremony in parliament, the TİP issued a statement denouncing his continued incarceration and inability to fulfill his legislative duties. Deputies from various opposition parties also voiced their support for his release.

Atalay’s imprisonment, broad support for his release, and roots in Gezi exemplify the ongoing challenges and tensions between the judiciary and political institutions, and the issue of human rights in Turkey. But his situation also underscores how the Gezi Park protests persist in shaping the political landscape and debates on democratic rights and freedoms.

Ultimately, political mobilization and collective action in Turkey were decisively reshaped, because the series of protests associated with Gezi Park did not simply expose societal fractures. More importantly, they provided a platform for diverse groups to come together, challenging the government’s actions while creating a space for peaceful coexistence. In so doing, they demonstrated the power of grassroots movements in challenging oppressive systems and inspiring alternative visions for society, where various groups with different political and ideological backgrounds can come together for common purposes.

Growing concerns about increasing authoritarianism in Turkey had been evident since the 2007 general elections. These fears aligned with data from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem), which revealed a decline in Turkey’s levels of liberal and participatory democracy around that time. Incidents of police violence against political protests surged, and censorship targeting media outlets and the internet escalated. By 2010, the ruling AKP passed constitutional amendments altering the high judiciary’s structure through a referendum. The democratic backsliding intensified after the AKP secured a third term in office in 2011. Political tensions escalated in 2012, highlighted by the forceful dispersal of an opposition march commemorating the anniversary of the foundation of the republic and concerns expressed by Freedom House regarding civil liberties in Turkey. The AKP also aggressively promoted its social agenda, such as imposing restrictions on alcohol sales.

The Turkish government still considers the protest an existential threat.

Given these broader concerns, it surprised many that something as seemingly small as an urban development project (aiming to transform Istanbul’s Taksim Square area, including Gezi Park, into a shopping mall) in September 2011 triggered what we know today as the Gezi Park protests. A diverse coalition of 124 organizations  came together to form the umbrella group known as Taksim Solidarity. Composed of associations, foundations, networks, and political parties, it included the Confederation of Revolutionary Labor Unions (Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu, DİSK), Lambdaistanbul LGBTI+ Solidarity Association, Women for Women’s Human Rights—New Ways (WWHR), Greenpeace Turkey, the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the Armenian Nor Zartonk (New Awakening) movement, and the movement for the retired and elderly. Some of these organizations had also been involved in the Global Justice Movement (including DİSK and several groups within TMMOB and the Turkish Medical Association). Despite, or because of, their diverse goals, the Taksim Solidarity group was narrowly focused on resisting the proposed urban development plan and the destruction of Gezi Park.

On May 28, 2013, a small group of approximately 20 people camped in the park, blocking the municipality’s plan to uproot trees for the impending reconstruction. The response from the police was one of outright repression: during the early hours of May 29 and again on May 30, the police set fire to the protesters’ tents.

The initial protest quickly evolved into a mass mobilization across the entire country. Spanning several weeks, the Gezi Park protests drew millions of people, who expressed their diverse forms of opposition to the government. Notably, the protests brought together previously segregated social and political forces, including secular Kemalists, far-right nationalists, and anticapitalist Muslims.

The picture captures two young individuals running hand in hand, evading police intervention. One of them firmly grasps a Turkish flag adorned with the image of Ataturk, while the other proudly holds the banner of the pro-Kurdish party at that time. In the midst of this scene, another person defiantly stands in their place, making the wolf hand gesture, a symbolic gesture associated with far-right nationalists in Turkey since the 1960s.

The protests bridged the divide between those with a history of participation and those attending a demonstration for the first time, fostering a shared experience and sense of community. Within Gezi Park itself, participants engaged in communal living, sharing not only food but also knowledge and experiences, all through the forums held within the protest. Gezi Park served as a space where disparate groups could peacefully gather in solidarity, collectively voicing their opposition to the government’s heavy-handed response to a massive yet peaceful protest.

The protests continued throughout the summer, although the intensity declined as of mid-June. Just a few weeks later, then Prime Minister Erdogan organized countermobilizations titled “Respect to the National Will” rallies. The AKP government turned a crisis into an opportunity and took a bolder step toward populism and authoritarianism; as its rhetoric became “very populist,” the protests were heavily repressed and the streets were “reclaimed” from actors demanding democracy. Osman Kavala—a civil society organizer and philanthropist who has been accused of orchestrating the protests with the alleged aim of overthrowing the government—was arrested in October 2017. Nearly six years later, he remains in prison. Consequently, Turkey’s credentials on democracy and human rights have been scrutinized both domestically and internationally. Indeed, the V-Dem data set indicates a decline in various aspects of democracy, including liberal and participatory democracy, following the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, as well as an increase in the levels of mobilization for autocratization in the country.


Turkey’s Progressive Past

By James Ryan

Shortly after the Gezi Park protests—in the June 2015 general elections—the AKP’s parliamentary majority faced its first challenge. The protests did not institutionalize into a political party, but they challenged the dominant narrative of the ruling party, amplified opposition voices, and strengthened social movements, ultimately shaping the preferences of the electorate and the subsequent political landscape. For example, Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond), a voluntary election observation platform founded in the aftermath of the protests by people active in them, managed to mobilize more than 56,000 volunteers in 46 provinces and 174 districts in the 2015 elections, showing the significant interest in “doing something,” especially among the youth. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was arguably inspired by the Gezi Park protests: in 2015, the HDP referred to “radical democracy” in their electoral manifesto, published another manifesto specifically for the youth, and focused on establishing itself as a party of and for Turkey instead of a regionalist party. The HDP ended up being the key player in the elections: it surpassed the then 10 percent electoral threshold and consequently prevented the AKP from forming a single-party government, even though the AKP eventually recovered its losses in the snap elections in November 2015.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the significance of Gezi Park is how much the Turkish government still considers the protest as an “existential threat.” Prior to Gezi, whenever substantial mobilizations occurred, the rulers would warn of the “pre-1980 coup period,” asserting that the protesters aimed to return the country to that perceived “chaotic” era. However, since the Gezi Park protests, the incumbents have repeatedly invoked Gezi when responding to mobilizations: everything from the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016 to the 2017 referendum protests and the activities of Oy ve Ötesi in the most recent election cycle.

These fears seem to have manifested in the recent arrest of 59 activists commemorating the 10th anniversary of Gezi Park in peaceful protest. Some in the opposition saw the 2023 elections—especially the runoff that took place on the exact day the protests started 10 years ago—as “a chance for justice.” And yet, since the AKP and Erdogan emerged victorious, any form of mobilization associated with the 2013 events (in the sense of having a broadly antigovernment sentiment) seems to risk triggering a government response. How much clearer could it be that the government perceives the legacy of the Gezi Park protests as a challenge to its authority?

Even a decade later, the Gezi Park protests remain highly relevant in Turkey, not only for the opposition but also for the government itself, which has become increasingly intolerant of any form of opposition that it perceives as undermining its authority. The protests did not give rise to a formidable political party. Instead, their enduring significance lies in their transformative impact on political participation and mobilization, the lasting and localized activism they inspired, the societal divisions they exposed, and their influence on subsequent electoral outcomes.

The protests served as a wake-up call, shedding light on the concerns and grievances of a diverse range of citizens who felt marginalized by the existing political system. They showcased the power of collective action and civic engagement, fostering a sense of solidarity and activism among participants. By challenging the dominance of traditional party politics, the protests called for solutions that extended beyond mere power consolidation, emphasizing the need for a more comprehensive and progressive political agenda.

As a reference point for understanding the ever-evolving dynamics of Turkish politics since 2013, the Gezi Park protests continue to hold immense importance. They serve as a powerful reminder of the enduring fight for democratic rights and freedoms within the country. The legacy of Gezi embodies the aspirations and demands of citizens striving for a more inclusive, accountable, and democratic society, making it impossible for both the government and the opposition to overlook. icon

This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho. Featured image: POMA Bulldozer Hijacked by Carsi at Gezi protests, taken by Gezginrocker / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)