Turkey’s 'Tree Revolution': Hard lesson in democracy - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Turkey’s ‘Tree Revolution’: Hard lesson in democracy

Police unleash tear-gas canisters against protesters in Taksim Square, downtown Istanbul. Taken from Marmara Hotel lobby. (Larry Luxner)

A new vision has dawned in Turkey. ‘The protection of the human rights of all citizens and the active participation of the people in politics and civic life’ are the driving tenets of any democracy. It is only fair for citizens to demand dignity and respect if their voices are not heard.

What began as a clash between environmentalist and police over plans to cut down trees in a park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square to make room for a shopping mall has now resulted in one of the biggest anti-government rallies in decades.  In the crackdown, which was ordered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, three people have died, hundreds have been injured and more than 1,000 have been arrested.

Several   debates cloud the search for answers about this upheaval. Many claim that Taksim Square is for Turkey what Tahir Square is for Egypt and that   Erdogan’s style has become too dictatorial, but as author and social activist Naomi Klein rightly confirms, “Democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity.”

But who would have thought that the right to dignity would be a sought after goal in a country where Prime Minister Erdogan’s ambitions account for the opening of a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea; the construction of an airport in the wooded lands north of Istanbul, a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, and nuclear power plants?

Turkey unrest. Riot police called to the scene to quell the protest. (Larry Luxner)

Turkey unrest. Riot police called to the scene to quell the protest. (Larry Luxner)

Given all these splendid achievements, the masses are still driven into protest and they are refusing to tolerate any or all forms of abuse from the state. Unlike Egypt’s Tahir square where people wanted to overthrow a corrupt established order, the people in Taksim square   are calling   for a regime change. They are demanding the right to be heard in a parliamentary representative democracy where government’s repression of the media, disrespect of public opinion and civil liberties are stifled.

As a result, the revolt in Turkey is much more than just a determination to save rows of sycamore trees.  It is the   kindled flames of a fire that that has been burning beneath for a long time.   It is the fire of Human Rights, Kurdish Rights, Women’s Rights and Press Freedom. Amnesty International and the International Federation of Journalists have labeled Turkey as “the country with the largest number of journalists under detention. Many renowned journalists have been arrested on   charges of terrorism and anti-state activities and have been forced out of their jobs by the personal intervention of the Prime Minister.” While Secularists point to a raft   on laws that block the marketing, sales and consumption of alcoholic drinks, Erdogan continues to undermine journalists, intellectuals, artists, judges, human rights activists, and NGOs.

Police unleashed several tear-gas canisters against protesters in Taksim Square, downtown Istanbul. (Larry Luxner)

Police unleashed several tear-gas canisters against protesters in Taksim Square, downtown Istanbul. (Larry Luxner)

It is clear that Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have departed from the norm of democracy. His assault on political and civil liberties show that people are fatigued with his despotic style of leadership and   substantiates the fact that democracy is a continuous evolving process that can yield surprising results.

In truth, the uprising in Turkey is a revelation that the shared theme of power should always be acknowledged in a democracy. If people feel neglected or abused, they will rise up for “it is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people.”

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, pointedly adds that “the middle class that the AKP has built is telling the governing party- Democracy is not just winning elections, it is also building consensus, so do not push projects down our throats. Talk to us and listen….. Now this middle class wants individual rights and takes issue with the Turkish ruling party’s understanding of democracy.”

Police respond with tear gas against  protesters in Turkey. (Larry Luxner)

Police respond with tear gas against protesters in Turkey. (Larry Luxner)

As demonstrated by this, Erdogan is not being challenged by the opposition party but by civil society. Although Bloomberg’s  editor  Marc Champion charges that  “Erdogan   is a force of nature and has a genius for turning events to his advantage” it must also be seen that  the protests  are occurring  at a  time when Erdoğan faces the challenges of  drafting a new constitution,   overhauling a slowed down economy, a Kurdish peace process,   supervising a complex Syrian crisis  and entry talks with the European  Union.

Unquestionably, the odds are not in his favor.

The protest may eventually dissolve, but it remains a warning sign to leaders the world over that Democracy works best when it flourishes in an atmosphere that celebrates opposition and diversity and the state must   respect the power of its citizens. ‘The sovereign power of democracy resides in the people, and is exercised either directly by them or by officers elected by them.’ Democracy cannot thrive without freedom of expression and when fascism and police brutality continue to surpass the will of the people then protest will eventually follow. As historian Howard Zinn contends, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”  Erdogan was elected by the people, but it is wrong to impose conventional social values on people who do not share them.

Thus, the rebellion in Turkey has brought home a hard lesson in democracy-“The People, United, will Never be Defeated.

About the author

Rebeca Theodore

Rebeca Theodore is a national security and political op-ed columnist based in Washington DC. Her work has appeared in various newsprint throughout the Caribbean, Canada and the US. Follow her on twitter @rebethd. Contact the author.

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