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Fraudulent democracy and urban stasis in Turkey


"Huzur isyanda"
(One finds peace in revolt)
- Graffiti in Istanbul
Democracy is a fraudulent contract, José Saramago once remarked; from the moment you cast your vote, you have abandoned power until the next election. This may be the way democratic elections work, but it is not how democracies should. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, however, seems all too content with this fraudulent contract. Once an election is over, he will rule over the country, doing whatever he thinks is right, without the slightest opposition, not even criticism—which he, notoriously, cannot stand. He will tell you how many children you should have, that you should not smoke and not eat white bread, and that you should drink the non-alcoholic ayranrather than getting drunk with rakı or any other alcoholic beverage (also trying, unsuccessfully, to criminalise adultery and abortion, and toying with the idea of imposing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens to move to Istanbul). Ever the social engineer, the prime minister has an idea on how everything should be, ranging from the private lives of citizens to the planning of cities, all of which he has been trying to regulate the past ten years.
The problem is that he has the power to regulate many things. After all, he has won three elections since 2002. His power is legitimate, although it certainly should not extend to some of the areas he has shown a keen interest in. Furthermore, he has to understand that although his power is legitimate, it is not absolute. What is absolute is the legitimacy of revolt, and if Turkey is to become ‘fully democratic’ one day (this is the stated aim of the government’s project for a new constitution), going well beyond a democratic-election regime, then he and his followers will have to come to terms with this. Brutalization, demonization and incarceration of those who disagree and resist will lead elsewhere. We have been there before, and I don’t think anyone remembers it fondly.
Politically the most promising aspect of the revolts in Turkey’s cities is that they show people can still revolt against democratically elected governments even in times when economic conditions are not dire—revolt for political ideals, dignity, and aspirations. And revolt with courage, too, despite bones broken, eyes lost, lives terminated. The revolts are the spatialisation of the resentment that has been growing over the years because of authoritarian governance, repression, and erosion of civil liberties, but also a spatial manifestation of these ideals and aspirations, and of the dignity and courage of political subjects constituted in the here and now, demonstrating their political capacity in the city. By standing up against a democratically elected government, the protestors remind us that politics is the business of anyone and no-one in particular, with no privileged subject, specific time or pre-determined space.
The triggering event for the revolts was the extreme violence exercised by the police on protestors in a dispute over the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Taksim Square, Istanbul, into a commercial complex. Taksim Square is a symbolic place for the secular Republic as well as for Left politics. At the centre of the European section of the city, it is the place for official ceremonies celebrating the Republic (with a monument to its founders) as well as for May Day celebrations (though this is only occasionally allowed). When the first Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan, came to power 1996, he promised to construct a mosque in Taksim Square. He was ousted the following year.

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