A European Spirit

In the streets of Istanbul, a new democratic spirit is taking root. But the violent repression of dissent shows that it cannot flourish as long as Erdogan remains in charge.

By Kerem Öktem

Turkey’s economy is booming, at least in terms of macro-economic indicators. Over the last ten years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) rule, the GDP per capital tripled and unemployment and urban poverty rates decreased significantly. Exports increased to the point that Turkey has come to be defined as a trading state. It is now the world’s 16th largest economy. By any means, the decade of AKP government has seen an unprecedented wave of modernization of infrastructure and public services, which allowed significant segments of precarious urban lower classes to join a growing middle class.
Why protest, when all seems to be going well in the terms of the country’s economy? The first answer would be that the economy isn’t everything and that individuals crave for more than just new motorways, shopping centers, and luxury residences, especially once they have more than just the absolute basics for daily survival. But there is more to take into consideration.

We need to remember that the Turkish economic “miracle” has come at the price of severely restricted labor rights and precarious working arrangements. The average private sector employee in Turkey works six days a week, enjoys two weeks of annual holidays and works significantly longer than eight hours a day. Lethal work accidents in the industrial sector, particularly in the shipping and construction trades are common. While the economy is booming, and wealth filtering down into the working classes, the disregard for labor rights and health and safety regulations at the work place is, indeed, one of the reasons for brewing discontent.

Another reason is both the direction of the neo-liberal “growth machine” and its political framing. Particularly in the last few years, the environment and the urban heritage has become a target for rent-generation and profit maximization. Hundreds of projects for dams and hydroelectric power plants have been pushed through, almost always without due environmental impact assessments and public consultation, driving thousands of law-abiding conservative villagers to the barricades and bringing them into conflict with an excessively brutal police force. The same dynamic has shaped the struggles around historical neighborhoods in Istanbul and elsewhere, which have been subjected to urban renewal projects based solely on the principle of commodification and the disregard of the rights of the current residents. To add insult to injury, these large-scale projects have been tendered to companies sympathetic to the government or to businessmen with family ties to the AKP political elite. The occupation of Gezi Park and Taksim was triggered by the logic of this urban developmentalism and the prospect of yet one more shopping center in what used to be Turkey’s cultural heart and the main stage of its social struggles. Read more…

Kerem Öktem is a research fellow at the European Studies Centre and an Associate Faculty Member at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford.

As published in www.theeuropean-magazine.com on June 12, 2013.


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A European Spirit In the streets of Istanbul, a new democratic spirit is taking root. But the violent repression of dissent shows that it cannot flourish…

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