Seizing Gezi Park - Erdoğan’s vendetta against the secular opposition

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is taking revenge for the 2013 Gezi Park protests that challenged his rule by taking over ownership of the green space in Istanbul from the opposition-run municipality, said Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir, coordinator for the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities.

“This controversial move is not only the latest episode of Erdoğan’s vendetta against Turkey’s secular opposition but also his never-ending culture war over public spaces,” Erdemir said in an article for Balkan Insight on Wednesday.

Gezi Park, where the biggest demonstrations against Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began in May 2013, was attached to the General Directorate of Foundations in March. 

The protests began as a small sit-in against the proposed destruction of one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces to make way for a shopping mall, but then spread across the country after police violently dispersed the protestors. Eleven people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured in the ensuing clashes.

Gezi Park is among over 1,000 properties that the Directorate General of Foundations has taken over in recent years “but undoubtedly the most symbolic one for Erdoğan alongside Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia”, Erdemir said.

Like the Hagia Sophia, the ownership transformation of Gezi Park “will be a symbolic act of domination, one that is personal to him and driven by sentiments of vengeance”, Erdemir said.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency. In July last year, Erdoğan announced the re-conversion of the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque. The first Muslim Friday prayers were held at the site on July 24.

The provocative moves of Turkey’s president have taken place during one of the worst economic downturns in the country’s history. The economic malaise has brought a significant decline in his support among voters, Erdemir said.

“Given the Turkish president has no opportunity to deliver in economic terms, stoking polarisation by waging a culture war is his last resort to close the ranks and divert public attention away from the country’s financial problems,” she said.

According to Erdemir, demolishing Gezi Park is a win-win situation for Erdoğan.

“On the one hand, this is yet another one of his signature moves in turning Istanbul’s prime real estate into lucrative rewards for his inner circle and on the other hand, the Turkish president gets to settle scores with all who have challenged his rule through the Gezi Park protests,” she said.

“Pursuing his personal vendetta while closing loyalist ranks and offering urban spoils is simply too good an opportunity for Erdoğan to pass up.”