In May 2013, a group of activists staged a sit-in at Istanbul’s Gezi Park, protesting the Turkish government’s plans to demolish the park to build a replica of the Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks that would include a shopping mall. The forced eviction of protesters from the park and the excessive use of police force sparked an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations. Around 3 million people took to the streets across Turkey over a three-week period to protest a wide range of concerns.
After these protests died down, activists had to adapt to a difficult political context. Many focused on local municipal issues and environmental concerns, while some civil society organizations focused on the more general state of Turkey’s democratic regression. Most activists, however, chose to adopt a lower profile as repression increased and the space for activism narrowed. In Turkey, postprotest attempts to form a new political party did not succeed.
The Gezi protesters originally came together to protest local environmental concerns. However, as the protests grew and spread, they turned into a larger opposition movement. Many people protested against not only the government’s urban development plans but also its refusal to allow citizens any influence over the restructuring of public urban spaces.1 Others protested the government’s intrusive practices, with its lack of respect for diverse lifestyles and more broadly democratic rights and individual freedoms. Many protesters demanded a change in governance and a more inclusive political understanding at both the local and national levels.
The Gezi protests soon led to the creation of new groups that focused on related issues. One of the major issues that has gained prominence is the so-called right to the city used broadly to denote the right to shape the city according to one’s needs and desires. The local forums established during the protests to discuss courses of action later scattered around the city to continue their work by focusing on local problems. Some of these groups mobilized on issues that touch upon people’s everyday lives. A larger-scale initiative that spun off from the Gezi protests is the City Defenses, locally organized networks advocating the people’s right to the city. Istanbul City Defense and various affiliated district-level City Defenses were established in 2014. City Defenses had an ambitious start and quickly organized local networks all around Istanbul.
During their initial years, City Defenses actively organized protests and demonstrations. They often collaborated with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and citizens, and in the single case of Istanbul’s Bakırköy, district with opposition parties. In addition, they focused on other local issues, such as the moving of bus stops inside Gezi Park (2014), unlicensed construction work on Beyoğlu Municipality’s historical building (2015), and the police’s use of violence against peddlers and small business owners (2015). These activists also protested the expropriation of an olive grove in Yırca by holding a demonstration in front of the constructor company’s head office in Istanbul (2015). Their numbers often were limited to hundreds, but they persistently followed specific issues, particularly urban renewal plans in their district.
A second issue that gained more prominence following the Gezi protests is the ecological struggle. A major offspring of the Gezi protests is the Northern Forests Defense, which was established right after the protests to defend the ecological sustainability of the area north of Istanbul. Many other smaller, locally focused environmentalist initiatives sprouted during this period. Some of these small initiatives did not form strictly out of the Gezi protests, but many are likely to be a result of rising consciousness and civic activism following the protests.
In the immediate years after the Gezi protests, several protests on these issues continued to bring large crowds out into the streets. Thousands gathered to protest the mine accident in Soma (2014); the abovementioned expropriation plans to demolish an olive grove to build a power plant in Yırca (2014); the Green Road project, which aims to link highlands and tourist areas in Black Sea Turkish provinces (with anticipated environmental impacts) (2015); a gold-mining project in Fatsa (2015); and mining activities in Cerattepe (2015–2016). Other local-level protests also came together during these initial years on a smaller scale but more widespread.
Protesters made efforts to translate the gains of the Gezi protests into mainstream politics. Soon after the protests ended, a group of protesters founded the Gezi Party. The party aimed to reflect the Gezi protests’ formative experience of acting together with different segments of society.2 It served as a collective platform, bringing in people from different ethnic and religious minority groups as well as secularists. The party organized fifty-two meetings across the country to discuss common problems, organized concerts in different ethnic languages to forge solidarity and raise funds, and supported the campaigns of some of the other post-Gezi groups. Despite these initial ambitions, the Gezi Party failed to open enough provincial and district organizations necessary to contest the upcoming 2015 general elections.
In addition, several new initiatives emerged with the aim of contributing to the democratic political process. In the immediate aftermath of the Gezi protests, groups and projects were set up to provide greater election transparency and accountability increased in number and visibility. A prominent example is the Vote and Beyond (Oy ve Ötesi) initiative, established by the protesters as a nonpartisan citizens’ group to monitor the electoral process in Turkey. The initiative attracted thousands of volunteers to monitor the local elections and continued to grow afterward.3 Activists organized workshops to train initiative volunteers on election monitoring and developed software (known as T3) to digitize the counting and verify the results. Although similar initiatives (for example, Turkey’s Votes, Election Time) followed suit, and earlier efforts, such as the Independent Election Monitoring Platform, gained traction, they did not enjoy the same level of attention and support as Vote and Beyond. Other groups took up other aspects of the elections. For instance, dokuz8HABER, a citizen journalism network established after the Gezi protests, started verifying election news in real time. The Checks and Balances Network, established in 2012 as a diverse coalition of NGOs working for a strong democracy, provided information about campaigning expenses after the 2015 general elections.4
The Gezi protests also led to a political coalition under the United June Movement. The Movement was established in 2014 as a broad political alliance bringing together left-leaning political parties, civil society organizations, members of parliament, academics, artists, and other individuals.5 It quickly organized in several provinces, established people’s assemblies, and aimed at developing a collective opposition of the left. Apart from mobilizing around the general elections, the movement also organized a campaign for scientific and secular education in early 2015. Members have held demonstration marches in several provinces and organized boycotts at schools.
Post-Gezi Pathways and New Strategies
Some of the post-Gezi groups that were active during the first few years after the Gezi protests began to adopt new pathways soon afterward. A sizable group of activists has chosen to lie low while waiting for new moments of mass mobilization. Activists affiliated with the City Defenses movement are one such example of this approach. Even though the City Defenses actively organized protests and demonstrations during their initial years, in recent years, they have faded for the most part.6 The networks they established continue to exist but have retreated mostly to social media. Occasionally, they can mobilize along with the local populations and local NGOs on issues of particular concern. For instance, following Kirazlıtepe’s new construction plan, Istanbul City Defense organized weekly protests in front of the municipal administration. Even then, the protests attracted only a limited number of activists, and the momentum soon faded without having an impact.
One exception to this slowdown in activity was the campaign against the plans to build a new hospital in place of the existing psychiatric hospital in the Bakırköy district of Istanbul. Under the new construction plan, the land (which has around 17,000 trees) is zoned for construction. Over the summer and fall of 2017, Bakırköy City Defense cooperated with local activist groups, chambers of commerce, unions, associations, and opposition party members and staged several demonstrations. Even though this campaign lasted some time and attracted much attention on the part of various stakeholders, the protests were generally small-scale.
Some Gezi protesters made efforts to move into mainstream politics, but these attempts also largely failed. Despite the initial optimism, the Gezi Party soon lost momentum. The party could never open the number of provincial organizations required to participate in the elections. The party faded and closed down in 2017. The United June Movement, which was launched in 2014, was also quick to lose momentum. Disintegration started as early as 2015 following a disagreement on whether or not to support the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi) in the elections. The disintegration continued following other differences of opinion. Gradually, the movement shrank; although it was not completely deactivated, its impact soon faded.
Although some protesters have dispersed and others have chosen to lie low, most civic activists have combined different strategies. First, despite the deteriorating political environment and shrinking numbers of protesters, some civic groups have kept up their contentious discourse and activities. For instance, the Northern Forests Defense, established just a few months after the Gezi protests for the ecological struggle, has continued to organize campaigns and protests. In recent years, they have staged protests against hydroelectric power plants in Izmir’s Aliağa (the “Break Free” campaign) and in the Thrace region and held a demonstration in front of the German Consulate in Istanbul to protest German government plans to cut down a large part of the Hambach forest in Germany for lignite mining operations.7 Most recently, environmentalist groups organized a collaborative campaign against the bill that allowed coal-fired thermal power plants to continue their operations without flue-gas filters until 2021. Their efforts were successful, as members of parliament have withdrawn the bill.8
The second strategy that has come to the fore is increased cooperation among different civic groups. Although cooperation is a regular part of civic activism, the considerable decrease in the number of people actively taking part in the campaigns has encouraged activists to work together with others.9 As a result, activists often cooperate with a diverse group of stakeholders on their campaigns, including unions, chambers, NGOs, other activist groups, and local members of the public. However, this is not to suggest that the Northern Forests Defense or any other group can bring large crowds to the streets with ease. In today’s Turkey, even large collaborative efforts often end up with a small group of protesters.
Third, civic activists have devoted more of their time to organizing community events and social gatherings. For instance, environmentalist groups regularly organize trekking tours through some of the few forests that remain around Istanbul. Last fall, civic groups also jointly organized a camping trip. Northern Forests Defense recently started weekly movie screenings and gatherings with other activist groups. Such efforts may help prolong civic engagement, encouraging those who might otherwise have drifted away to remain in contact with the movement and take part in its actions. These additional strategies are not confined to new civic activists. Other groups that were active before the Gezi protests alternate between protests and social gatherings as well. For instance, LGBT groups have continued to march in their own Istanbul Pride Parade even though the authorities have banned the event for four years in a row. They also stage demonstrations and issue press releases, especially in response to violence against members of the LGBT community. At the same time, they also undertake less direct activities, such as offering movie screenings, communal meetings, and psychotherapy services for the community.
Finally, some groups have not altered their course in this period. For instance, Vote and Beyond has continued to organize election monitoring in successive elections in Turkey and has seen more volunteers working on its initiatives.10 This is not to suggest, however, that Vote and Beyond enjoys across the board support for its work. Some media outlets have approached such monitoring work suspiciously, while others openly defame the initiative.11 Nonetheless, Vote and Beyond has close to 50,000 volunteers now. Although its work intensifies during voting periods, it is important to remember that Turkish citizens have been to the polls six times since the Gezi protests: the 2014 and 2019 local elections, the June and November 2015 general elections, the 2017 referendum, and the 2018 presidential and general elections. When its preliminary preparations, including training programs, are counted in its work, this amounts to mobilizing tens of thousands of people around once a year. More recently, Vote and Beyond has been expanding its working area to better local governance through its Neighborhood project. With this project, the initiative aims to act as a platform that brings local people together with other local stakeholders (including municipalities, NGOs, and political parties) to solve the problems that locals identify in their neighborhoods.12
Explaining the New Pathways
The domestic political context is the primary factor that shapes the post-Gezi pathways of civic activists, though individual and collective decisions may also play a part. Soon after the Gezi protests, the legal and political environment for civic activism deteriorated. The government proposed a highly debated domestic security bill in early 2015, following the massive protests against the government’s nonintervention policy in the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s siege of Syria’s Kurdish-populated Kobane. Commonly referred to as the internal security reform package, the new law tightened restrictions on meetings and demonstrations and gave the police enhanced powers during demonstrations, including the authority to detain anyone without a prosecutor’s order. The collapse of Turkey’s domestic peace process with its Kurdish citizens in July 2015, the ensuing low-grade civil war in southeast provinces, and the deadly terrorist attacks considerably narrowed the scope for civic activism in the country. In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the Turkish parliament (with an overwhelming majority) approved a state of emergency to investigate and punish in a more efficient way those responsible. The state of emergency was extended at three-month intervals until it ended in July 2018. Although the government has the right and responsibility to pursue criminal proceedings against people involved in the attempted putsch, many interpreted the ensuing crackdown as an opportunity to silence opposing views.
The extraordinary measures adopted following the failed coup attempt had severe implications for the civic engagement. Recurrent bans and restrictions on public gatherings and assemblies under an extended state of emergency significantly narrowed civic space. At the same time, with a large number of arrests and closure of many civil society organizations, the boundaries of what was politically permissible in terms of civil society activities in Turkey has changed. The widespread uncertainty and fear that followed put immense pressure on civic activists.
These developments affected Turkish civic activism across the board. Many people who had actively joined in the protests a few years earlier started to shy away from demonstrations and limit their support to social media. As a result, activist groups shrank in size, fewer people turned out for the protests, and the impact of street activism waned. That said, the activist groups took different pathways and adopted new strategies to weather the current conditions. Understanding the difficulty in rallying people for protests, civic activists in some groups chose to lie low and focus their attention on community events and social gatherings instead. Activist groups shifted toward these alternate activities for two key reasons: increasing community cohesion and attracting new supporters.
First, even though activists emphasize the importance of people coming together for a cause, they also note that, today, many people would not join civic groups solely to participate in a protest.13 Rather, activists have been providing community events, such as communal meetings, as an opportunity for people to come together around issues that concern them. In doing this, they remind their supporters of their cause. For instance, some of the LGBT groups want to live their identity more freely without clashing with the state.14 Such events allow them this space, one which supports and reaffirms their identity without forcing a confrontation with the authorities. Likewise, meetings with other activists give participants the feeling that they are not alone at a time when many activists lie low and their activities are not visible. This becomes a source of motivation for activists and also helps them retain the established networks and prevent their supporters from completely breaking away.
This approach may help explain why Vote and Beyond continues to attract a growing number of volunteers as observers for successive elections. There has been widespread concern about election security in Turkey and suspicion that elections are increasingly manipulated. Election monitoring allows people to get involved in certain democratic processes without being directly involved in party politics. In this way, they can take action to address a problem that concerns them without taking to the streets and risking a direct confrontation with security forces.
Second, some of these events have become an avenue through which civic activists attract new supporters for their cause. In particular, during the trekking and camping activities, the environmentalists introduce their cause to new groups in an indirect way. With these walks, the activists also try to overcome the public perception that nothing is left of the northern forests. These activities provide an important opportunity to show people what is still at stake.
At the same time, despite the prevalent fear and shrinking numbers of supporters, environmentalists continue to stage protests. With only a handful of protesters participating and no press attending or mentioning the event, they sometimes feel that they stage the demonstrations without wider support. In addition, they may be focusing on hyperspecific local issues with less ambitious targets, which prevents them from appealing to a broader audience. However, some groups continue their work because these demonstrations preserve the momentum for activism in the face of current unfavorable conditions. For activists, organizing protests is more than merely a way of reacting to a concrete grievance. No matter what the outcome may be, it also has become a tool for retaining hope and belief in civic activism, until the right moment comes for the next mass movement.
Given their fluid structure and social-media-based organization, it often is difficult for civic activists to retain momentum. To mitigate this problem, some groups have evolved into a structure that mirrors a traditional civil society organization. For instance, activists at Northern Forests Defense set up working groups, prepare action plans, and develop strategies, particularly for issues that require long-term attention. They still call their regular meetings “forums,” but these forums resemble the meetings of mainstream civil society organizations, where participants plan, discuss, and work on future or potential activities. Some of these groups have even established formal organizations; however, they chose to take this additional step because Turkish law requires organizations to have a legal identity in order to rent an office or raise funds.
Civic activists’ efforts at moving into mainstream politics have not been successful on the whole. The Gezi protests embodied a reaction to existing political structures and a call for a change in governance. Opting for the current political parties would have been against what many of the protesters demanded. Even though the Gezi Party tried to create a more inclusive, participatory, and less hierarchical structure in response, its emphasis on sustaining the shared sense of community more than focusing on policies that failed to meet people’s desire for quick solutions. During its active period, the party acted mainly as a platform sustaining the “Gezi spirit.” In addition, the party could not cover the financial costs of organizing nationwide in order to stand in elections. Comparatively, the United June Movement, which brought together actors from existing political structures, also failed to overcome differences of opinion or establish a common ground, especially during the election periods.15 The people’s assemblies did not reach out to new people. As the movement disintegrated, the assemblies quickly shrank and became passive.
In 2017, large numbers of people were mobilized in the run-up to the constitutional referendum that gave sweeping new powers to the Turkish president. In parallel to a series of “No” campaigns led by opposition parties, post-Gezi groups ran a number of civic initiatives. The United June Movement launched the No and Beyond campaign to support the no vote and called for election monitoring. Other initiatives did not form out of post-Gezi groups, but nevertheless enjoyed their support. For instance, a group of civic activists established what is known as the No Assemblies initiative. The civic initiative has organized local-level no campaigns. The first No Assemblies campaign kicked off in February and soon expanded to nearly thirty districts in Istanbul and in other places before the April referendum.16
Following the Supreme Election Board’s controversial decision to approve as valid some 1.5 million unstamped referendum ballots—a figure that could have tipped the balance of the vote result—prompted allegations of fraud and mass protests. Thousands of people took to the streets in Istanbul and in several other cities in the subsequent days to demonstrate against the decision and the results. After thirty-eight opposition figures were arrested, and the protests faded, No Assemblies activists continued to demonstrate and organized a march in Istanbul under the slogan “You Are Not Legitimate.”17 Soon after, a group of activists staged demonstrations in support of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, who had launched a hunger strike after losing their jobs in the purge following the coup attempt and were later detained. Some other groups 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.18
The successive mass mobilization of large crowds in 2017 shows that a flame of contention—activist capital—had been kept alive. The legacy of the Gezi protests continues. Even though not all post-Gezi groups were directly involved in organizing these campaigns and rallies, their earlier efforts contributed to a more resilient society and helped activists find ways to reinvent the civic space even after it closed down. It is difficult to know how long the activists can sustain this potential or when the new moment of mass mobilization will come.
Özge Zihnioğlu is a lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool.
The author wishes to thank Hande Paker for her valuable contributions in the preparation of this chapter.
1 Gaye İlhan Demiryol, “Turkey’s Arendtian Moment: Gezi Park Protests,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 20, no. 6 (2018): 531–546.
2 Interview with a founding member of the Gezi Party, April 30, 2019.
3 See the Oy ve Ötesi [Vote and Beyond] initiative’s website, https://oyveotesi.org/hakkinda/biz-kimiz/.
4 “Seçim Kampanyası Finansmanı Değerlendirme Raporu 1 Kasım 2015 Genel Seçimleri” [Evaluation report on financing electoral campaign analysis, November 1, 2015 general elections], Report no. 5, Checks and Balances Network, http://www.birarada.org/upload/Node/22980/files/Sec_im_Kampanyasi_Finanasmani_Deg_erlendirme_Raporu.pdf.
5 İzel Sezer, “Birleşik haziran hareketi’nde neler oluyor?” [What is happening at the United June Movement?], İleri Haber, November 14, 2018, https://ilerihaber.org/icerik/birlesik-haziran-hareketinde-neler-oluyor-91560.html.
6 Interview with a founding member of Istanbul City Defense, February 22, 2019.
7 “Bilirkişi ‘Aliağa’da termik santral olmamalı’ dedi” [“Aliağa should not be a thermal power plant,” says Bilirkişi], Evrensel, August 30, 2017, https://www.evrensel.net/haber/330949/bilirkisi-aliagada-termik-santral-olmamali-dedi; “KOS’tan Çerkezköy’de termik santral kapanış töreni” [Closing ceremony of thermal power plant in Çerkezköy], Northern Forests Defense, February 20, 2019, https://kuzeyormanlari.org/2019/01/20/kostan-cerkezkoyde-termik-santral-kapanis-toreni; and Pınar Tarcan, “Kuzey ormanları savunması’ndan Almanya’daki Hambach direnişine destek” [North Forest Defense supports Hambach resistance in Germany], Bianet, September 24, 2018, https://m.bianet.org/bianet/ekoloji/201092-kuzey-ormanlari-savunmasi-ndan-almanya-daki-hambach-direnisine-destek.
8 “Baskı sonuç verdi: Filtresiz termik santrallere izin çıkmadı” [Printing yields: No filter-free thermal power plants allowed], Deutsche Welle, February 15, 2019, https://www.dw.com/tr/bask%C4%B1-sonu%C3%A7-verdi-filtresiz-termik-santrallere-izin-%C3%A7%C4%B1kmad%C4%B1/a-47528161.
9 Özge Zihnioğlu, “The Prospects of Civic Alliance: New Civic Activists Acting Together with Civil Society Organizations,” Voluntas 30, no. 2 (2019): 289–299.
10 See the Oy ve Ötesi website at https://oyveotesi.org/hakkinda/biz-kimiz/.
11 Aybike Eroğlu and Neslihan Önder, “Şaibe çetesine Soros desteği” [Soros support to Şaibe gang], Yeni Şafak, June 4, 2015, https://www.yenisafak.com/secim/saibe-cetesine-soros-destegi-2155171; and Sabah, “Oy ve Ötesi’nin Altında da FETÖ Çıktı” [FETÖ released under Oy ve Ötesi], October 22, 2015, https://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2015/10/21/oy-ve-otesinin-altindan-da-feto-cikti.
12 See the Oy ve Ötesi website at https://oyveotesi.org/mahalle-nedir/.
13 Interview with a founding member of Istanbul City Defense, February 22, 2019.
14 Interview with LGBT activist and Istanbul Pride Parade organizer, February 12, 2019.
15 Sezer, “Birleşik Haziran Hareketi’nde Neler Oluyor?.”
16 See the No Assemblies website at http://tercihhayir.org/hakkimizda.html; and “‘Hayır’ meclisleri kuruluyor” [The “No” Assemblies are established], Bianet, February 17, 2017, https://m.bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/183749-hayir-meclisleri-kuruluyor.
17 “Meşru değilsiniz eylemine polis saldırdı” [Police attacked the You Are Not Legitimate demonstration], BirGün, May 21, 2017, https://www.birgun.net/haber-detay/mesru-degilsiniz-eylemine-polis-saldirdi-160578.html.
18 Özgür Gürbüz, “Doğa için de adalet gerek” [Justice also needed for the nature], Northern Forests Defense, July 3, 2017, http://www.kuzeyormanlari.org/2017/07/03/doga-icin-de-adalet-gerek/.