After Protests, Forums Sprout in Turkey’s Parks

July 7, 2013

Crowds gathered at Abbasaga Park in Istanbul in late June. Anti-government protests have dimmed after an intense crackdown, but Turks continue to gather each night in dozens of parks across the country to brainstorm about ways to get politically organized. Photo: Ed Ou for The New York Times


More than a thousand people sat quietly in a stone amphitheater at a park here on a recent mild summer evening, keenly listening to dozens of Turks who took the floor, one by one, to speak their minds.

“I have never done this before, talking to so many people,” Muge Cevik, a computer engineer, said timidly as she stood on a stage barely lighted by street lamps at Abbasaga Park, trees casting a shadow over the audience.

The recent antigovernment riots, which began with a sit-in at an Istanbul park scheduled for demolition and grew to encompass the grievances of millions of Turks disillusioned with their government, have largely faded after an intense crackdown about three weeks ago. Now, Turkey’s parks have become safe places to gather and speak freely, with people arriving each evening in dozens of parks nationwide to discuss what happens next.

Their movement is driven by concern about what critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan call his autocratic tendencies, the growing influence of religion in state institutions, and government intrusions into private life, like legislation to regulate alcohol use.

Turkey’s opposition parties are widely viewed as ineffectual, and in the absence of credible institutional opposition, the largely youthful demonstrators have taken to what they call “people’s forums” to create a different platform for dissent.

The forums, an unprecedented exercise in grass-roots democracy in a country with no tradition of public assembly, are not affiliated with any political party. Organically evolving, and with no leadership, they aim not to form a new political party but to structure a new political system. At the very least, participants say, they are a way to keep up the pressure on Mr. Erdogan’s administration.

Those attending them say a heavy-handed police response to the protests — tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were used to disperse crowds, and four people died — has united them despite political, sectarian, ethnic and social differences.

“Those with or without head scarf, Marxist or communist, believer or not — we walked all together, and should continue to stand for each other,” said a man wearing a black T-shirt, speaking on another recent evening to a crowd of nearly 100 men and women in Ortanca Park in Ferikoy, an Istanbul neighborhood. “I am here on behalf of revolutionary Muslims, and we are determined to ruin the government’s game, end their exploitation of pious people.”

Those in the crowd did not applaud, but instead fervently waved their hands in the air, following a sign language now common in these forums. Crossed arms mean “no” or disapproval; arms moved in a rotating motion mean “wrap it up” for those who speak too long. The gestures, adopted from those used at matches by a fan club for a local soccer team, are used to avoid disturbing the public during the late-night forums.

Ms. Cevik, in Abbasaga Park, is one of thousands who show up each evening to brainstorm about ways to get politically organized around basic principles like democracy, equality and human rights before local elections in nine months. “Istanbul is the heart of Turkey,” she said. “We should be able to send at least one independent candidate of ours from this city to Parliament in upcoming elections.”

A large crowd waved hands to applaud as she turned the stage over to an older man who wanted to share his experience in Turkey’s long struggle for democracy after at least three military interventions. “We do not have time to lose,” said the man, who identified himself only as a 58-year-old “democracy veteran.” “Young people should get engaged in politics and try to win over government supporters.”

Many of the speakers in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, have withheld their names as the police continue to track down protesters. More than 75 people have been formally charged with violating the law on public protests during the riots, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, based in Istanbul, said in a report late last month.

Also last month, the Turkish Ministry of Communication contacted Twitter and Facebook, seeking copies of messages that users in Turkey exchanged during protests — a request that both companies declined, news reports said. And the transportation ministry planned to form a special unit to monitor social media for crimes committed online, a pro-government newspaper, Yeni Safak, reported Tuesday.

Twitter and Facebook are still the main tools of information exchange among protesters, who have accused Turkey’s mainstream news media of censorship and failing to adequately cover the uprising. So around 200 people who converged on a green slope in Kugulu, or Swan, Park in Ankara waved their hands for Unver Coskun, an electronics engineer, when he suggested reaching out to the elderly to inform them about political conversations on social media sites.

“We need to safeguard ballot boxes, link with other forums, create lists of volunteers who would contact elderly people or others that do not use the Internet,” Mr. Coskun said.

Close to midnight on a recent Thursday, couples, parents and children filled benches in the bowl-shaped Kugulu Park — which protesters had used as a base until the police pushed them out of their tents and removed their banners and posters.

Two young women sat close to a small artificial lake that a large family of swans had inhabited before they were moved to a safer location, along with a couple of ducks, out of fear that they would die of exposure to tear gas fired by the police.

“I hope that these forums will serve some purpose,” said one woman, a public worker with dark hair and a beaded short-sleeve top. She chose to watch the forum from a distance.

“At work, it is a different world — they have the power and treat us as a minority. They run the office like a religious institution, with prayer breaks and Koran readings.”

Mr. Erdogan is still popular among conservative Muslims, who see him as a savior from the rule of the elitist secularists, and officials of his pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party have dismissed criticisms of autocratic or religiously oriented government policies. They have labeled the protesters internationally driven conspirators, or even terrorists.

“We stood together, listened to each other,” said Fatma Ozdogan, 24, an architect who joined the Abbasaga Park forum. “From now on, the Parliament, political actors, will be obliged to listen to the voice of their people.

“The protests, and now the forums, will be the game changer in Turkey’s political life.”


Source: The New York Times

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