This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.
The impact of Turkey’s democratic deterioration in recent years is manifest in the country’s civil society. A large-scale crackdown on civil society, coupled with the daunting state of emergency measures that the government has enacted, instills fear and uncertainty among many activists. People are shying away from civic activism, and the size, scope, and visibility of activist groups and their activities are waning.
In the face of these difficult circumstances, various activist groups are trying to cope by adjusting their structures and preserving a flame of contention. Much of Turkish civic activism may be crippled, but a string of protests in 2017 shows it retains potential.
Declining Civic Activism
The protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 rendered a new type of civic activism more visible and acted as a catalyst for further civic activism in Turkey. These new civic activists organize under ad hoc groups, work in loose networks, extensively use social media, focus on specific local problems, and usually engage in multiple issues at the same time. However, post-Gezi developments have limited the potential for their activities.
The opening produced by the 2013 protests was brief, as both the legal and political environment for civic activism soon deteriorated. In March 2015, the Turkish parliament passed restrictive laws in response to extensive protests in Turkey’s southeast against the government’s decision not to intervene in the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s siege of Kobane, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey. Widely referred to in Turkey as the Internal Security Reform Package, the laws expanded the powers of the police, even granting the authority to detain anyone without a prosecutor’s order. This was followed by the banning in June 2015 of the thirteenth LGBTİ Pride Parade in Istanbul. The situation continued to worsen as polarization increased following political deadlock and terrorist attacks.
Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the government adopted extraordinary measures that had severe implications for civic engagement. Less than a week after the coup attempt, parliament approved a state of emergency to investigate and punish in a more efficient way those responsible. Although the government holds the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen responsible for the attempted coup, many are of the opinion that the crackdown extended beyond his followers and became a tool to silence any opposing view.
As fear and uncertainty spread, activists began to retrench. Once the driving force behind activism, young people now limited their critical engagement to social media. During the post-Gezi period, protests withered and the media lost interest in them. As activist groups steadily shrank, some were left with just a handful of long-standing activists. Even the larger activist groups at times failed to gather enough participants to convene their forums (the regular meetings open to everyone’s participation in discussions and decisionmaking).1
Reviving Civic Activism
Despite the downturn, developments in 2017 show that civic activism is not yet a thing of the past, and that certain issues are still able to draw large crowds.
Mass mobilizations took place in 2017, triggered by Turkey’s constitutional referendum that had been designed to approve sweeping new presidential powers. In the run-up to the referendum, a series of No campaigns took shape, led by political parties and civil society organizations. In parallel, a group of civic activists established a No Assemblies (in Turkish, Hayır Meclisleri) initiative. These assemblies were local initiatives that organized No campaigns at the grassroots level. The first of these kicked off in February with thirteen local groups, and quickly expanded to nearly thirty districts in Istanbul and a few other locations.
The referendum also mobilized activist groups that had been established following the Gezi Park protests. For instance, the left-leaning United June Movement ran its own extensive No campaign. The group tried to reach out to people both individually through its local assemblies and more broadly via other campaign methods, such as informative meetings, demonstrations, and press conferences.
In the referendum on April 16, voters narrowly approved the proposed constitutional amendments with 51.4 percent in favor. However, the Supreme Election Council decided to count some 1.5 million unstamped ballots as valid. Because the law stipulates that the ballots should be stamped by election officials to be validated, this led to allegations of fraud and ignited large protests. For several days, thousands of people took to the streets in liberal neighborhoods of Istanbul, and in several other cities, to demonstrate against the results.
The protests eventually faded. The government detained thirty-eight opposition activists and rejected the allegations of fraud. However, the activists did not abandon their struggle and remained mobilized. No Assemblies groups organized a march that took place on May 21 in Istanbul with the slogan “You Are Not Legitimate” (in Turkish, Meşru Değilsiniz). The date was chosen carefully—it was the day that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected as the head of the ruling AK Party, something that was not legally permitted under the pre-referendum rules.
Despite No Assemblies’ failure both before and after the referendum, their actions expanded to other areas. In major cities, activist groups along with civil society organizations staged numerous demonstrations in support of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, who had launched a hunger strike on March 9, 2017, to protest the purge following the coup attempt during which they lost their jobs and were later detained. These activists also supported the main opposition leader’s Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul, as well as the Justice Watch in a local park in Istanbul.2 In addition, No Assemblies groups have tried to mold themselves into people’s assemblies, addressing broader problems such as those related to social, labor, and environmental policies.
Over the summer and fall, there were several protests in the Bakırköy district of Istanbul against plans to build a new hospital. The proposed hospital would be built in place of an existing psychiatric hospital. Under the new construction plan, land that holds 17,000 trees is zoned for construction. This angered not only environmentalists and locals but also city planners who argue that the new plan does not protect the existing hospital’s plan and opens up a large part of the green spaces to construction. Doctors were also angered because the new hospital will be a public-private joint venture replacing a public one and led to various forms of protest. Local activist groups together with chambers, unions, associations, and opposition party members staged demonstrations and collected 30,000 signatures on a petition calling for the annulment of the construction plan.
Looking ahead, 2019 will be a crucial flashpoint for civic activism in Turkey, with presidential, parliamentary, and local elections all due. Preparations are already brewing under the surface. With around a year before the start of the electoral marathon, different activist groups may mobilize once again. They are likely to engage especially on the issue of electoral fraud.
The Challenge of Sustaining the Momentum
Despite the unfavorable conditions, some of the activist groups established during or after the Gezi protests have continued working without a break. They may have focused on isolated local issues and had less ambitious aims. However, these activities served to keep up the momentum for activism in the face of uncertainty and fear. For these activists, organizing protests is not merely responding to specific events. No matter the outcome, it has also become a tool for retaining hope and belief, until the right moment comes for the next mass movement.
During this period, activists did more than stage protests, demonstrations, and marches. Some of the politically oriented groups also carried out uncontentious activities. One good example has been hiking tours organized by environmentalists through some of the few forests around Istanbul.3 These long walks serve multiple purposes. First, civic activists introduce their cause, which is to protect the green spaces in and around Istanbul, to new groups in an indirect way. Following major construction projects like Istanbul’s third bridge over the Bosporus Strait, some people think that not much is left of northern forests. These walks provide an opportunity for environmentalists to show that a major part of the forests remains and still needs protection further construction. In addition, these walks prevent their supporters from completely disengaging. In a way, such activities help these groups sustain themselves during a period when activist groups have otherwise shrunk and protests downsized.
It is difficult for new civic activists to keep up momentum in their loose structure. In response, some of these groups, under the leadership of more experienced activists, have assumed a hybrid structure and adopted some of the practices of traditionally organized civil society organizations, which have a more clearly defined institutional structure and membership base. For instance, for issues requiring long-term attention, new civic activists set up working groups, prepare action plans, and develop formal strategies as opposed to working in loose networks and in an ad hoc fashion. Some of these groups still retain their forums—remnants of the Gezi protests—although these have turned into the regular meetings of any civil society organization where participants plan, discuss, and work on activities. Some have even established parallel formal organizations that allow them to rent out office space or raise funds.
This evolution toward a hybrid structure might be necessary for new civic activists’ long-term prospects. But many younger activists, who remained distant to traditionally organized civil society organizations due to their hierarchical and bureaucratic structure, are already bristling at some of these changes because they think that these changes may lead to a similar hierarchical and bureaucratic structure. The younger activists may eventually disconnect from these new activist groups. The challenge is finding the right balance without sparking a generational clash among civic activists.
The promising outlook for Turkey’s civic activism during the Gezi protests lasted for only a brief period. Deteriorating conditions in Turkey may have influenced activist groups’ size, scope, visibility, and impact. However, various initiatives in 2017 indicate that civic activism has not died completely.
The successive demonstrations, protests, and marches since early 2017 not only show civic activists’ continuing potential to mobilize but also demonstrate that civic activists can weather unfavorable conditions—at least to some extent. This drive has the potential to bring together different segments of society and mobilize the masses.
That said, sustaining civic activism in Turkey presents challenges that are increasingly difficult to overcome. Civic activists today struggle to make long-term plans due to prevailing uncertainty in many spheres. Upcoming elections in 2019, particularly the presidential election, may provide the necessary stimulus for activists. However, the conditions are unlikely to change in the near future. Therefore, while recent events may raise hopes in some quarters, expectations about the future of civic activism should remain cautious.
Özge Zihnioğlu is an associate professor in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Kültür University in Turkey. She is a member of the Carnegie Endowment’s Civic Research Network.
1 Author’s interview with Başar Toros and Banu Uzpeder, Northern Forests Defense, October 5, 2017.