Eric Smaling, SP Member of Parliament in Turkey: broad resistance in Istanbul

2 July 2013

Eric Smaling, SP Member of Parliament in Turkey: broad resistance in Istanbul

SP Member of Parliament Eric Smaling reports on a visit to Istanbul for a conference of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Eric SmalingThe contrast couldn’t be greater. Mass protest in Taksim Square in central Istanbul – of Kurds; Kemalists who remain faithful to the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk; gays; and people who simply don’t want to see Gezi park cut to pieces to make way for a mosque and a shopping mall; while at the same time a conference takes place in Istanbul bringing together hundreds of parliamentarians from the member states of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who have scarcely a word to say about these events. Still, this is typical of what happens these days. It is, true enough, a coincidence that conference and protests clash, but the current holder of the OSCE’s rotating presidency, in the person of Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, refused to allow any comment when Dutch Labour MP Michiel Servaes asked for the floor to do just that. MPs from Turkey’s AK Party – the Party for Justice and Development – the party of Prime Minister Erdogan – certainly did have things to say about the events, expressing themselves in the most extreme phraseology: the demonstrators are terrorists.


Instead of attending the lavish dinner, therefore, I went along to the Taksim Square demonstration, where there was indeed an enormous mass of people. They were standing silently, but their silence was itself a question. Turkey is experiencing a period of strong economic growth, inflation has been curbed, the Kurdish question can be discussed, some say. That’s the good news. Others say that economic growth based in reality on credit is simply a bubble, that the country is facing the same fate as Argentina at the beginning of the century and that the gap between rich and poor has grown. So when it comes to questions, people are concerned above all about the creeping Islamicisation. Mosque and state have since Ataturk been strongly separated. ‘You worship at home’, we might say. Out on the street everyone mingles: men are predominant, but women of all sorts are there too: with the headscarf, without the headscarf. With and without the veil.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan has an enormous amount of support, recorded a huge victory in the 2011 elections, but in the eyes of the opposition behaves increasingly like an autocrat. You might think the man comes from a village in Anatolia, but Istanbul is his city. Born in the ancient neighbourhood of Kasimpaa, as a boy he sold lemonade in the street then grew up to be mayor of Istanbul. He has also done time in prison, which for the most part adds to one’s status as a hero. The protests in Taksim Square do not result from a single occurrence, but from pent up discontent. A little bit of give, as in Brazil, would perhaps be the best way to respond to the people, but that small dose of empathy does not seem easy to extract.


Against the demonstrators there stands an enormous political power structure. The police officers are in general extremely young, and when on Saturday the chanting grew loud and the flags were waving fiercely, I got out of the way just in time when the police charged. On this occasion at least, no tear gas was used; neither was there a great deal of violence. On Sunday the square was taken over by homosexuals, a Gay Pride event that was already planned and made a big impression. The police took a look and then let it go on. The Turkish float on the Amsterdam Gay Pride can take heart from this.

In the evening we sailed over the Bosporus with all of the OSCE parliamentarians: a remarkable part of the world, where in 667BC the Byzantine Empire was founded, where Emperor Constantine the Great in 330AD established a new capital for the Roman Empire, where in 1453 the Ottoman Empire was founded and in 1922 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the ground for modern Turkey, and where in 2013 too, history is being written and added to that of this fascinating country.

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