Turkey’s opposition shows new vitality in recent protests - analysis

Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the June rerun of the Istanbul mayor’s race, Turkey has seen the largest wave of anti-government protests since the 2013 Gezi Park rallies, suggesting new vitality among the opposition, said an analysis for U.S. think tank the Washington Institute. 

In May 2013, a small group protested in downtown Istanbul’s Gezi Park against the government’s decision to turn the park into a mall. Police brutality against the group soon led to Turkey’s largest protest movement in years, with more than two million citizens joining across the country.

“When the demonstrations ended that August, a new era had begun in Turkey, with the police subsequently cracking down on even the smallest anti-government rally,” Soner Çağaptay, Beyer Family Fellow at The Washington Institute, and Deniz Yüksel, a research assistant at the Institute, wrote on Monday. “The ground may be shifting again this summer, however.”

Last month, a small group of activists staged a peaceful protest against a controversial gold mining project in the Ida Mountains in west Turkey. Public outrage swelled after a Turkish NGO revealed that some 195,000 trees had been cut down ahead of construction—more than four times the number promised by the mining company and approved by the Ministry of Energy and National Resources, according to Çağaptay and Yüksel.

“Within days, the rally grew to tens of thousands, and protestors began calling for a halt in construction and greater public consultation on environmental issues,” the authors said. 

The political opposition led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the IYI Party has taken an active role in this and other protests. 

On social media, tens of thousands of Turks have expressed their support with the hashtag #KazdaginaDokunma (“Don’t touch the Ida Mountains”), and nearly half a million have signed a petition to halt the project.

The government’s June decision to start filling the Ilisu Dam reservoir in the southeast and submerge the historic town of Hasankeyf has aroused criticism from a broad coalition of activists and politicians, the authors said, while activists, lawyers, and opposition politicians also presented a united front against a government plan to build a park around newly unprotected Lake Salda in Turkey’s southwest. 

“So far, Ankara has not cracked down on groups protesting the projects in the Ida Mountains, Hasankeyf, or Lake Salda, but it has reaffirmed its intentions to move forward with each project,” said Çağaptay and Yüksel, adding that the opposition’s win in Istanbul mayoral election in June has been a key driver of the recent rallies. 

“The AKP’s loss damaged President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s image as the ‘invincible politician’,” they added, in large part because Istanbul is a crucial post that has served as a stepping stone to national power. 

Nearly half of Turkey’s people oppose the president, but until recently their numbers were split among disparate groups of Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, centre-left and centre-right factions, according to Çağaptay and Yüksel.

“The last time major anti-government rallies took place in Turkey, Erdoğan was able to snuff them out not only because of his power over state security organs, but also because the opposition lacked a unified platform and leadership,” the authors said. “This time, the opposition seems more united than it was in 2013, and it might even have a symbolic leader in the person of (Istanbul mayor Ekrem) İmamoğlu, the only politician who has defeated Erdoğan since 2003.”