To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate May Day in Istanbul

Once again, this year, in Istanbul, the government banned May Day demonstrations and the police attacked fiercely protestors with pepper gas and water cannons. 39,000 members of the police prevented workers and people from celebrating May Day at the central square of Istanbul, Taksim Square.

Taksim square is not only a touristic area, but also a place for gatherings of all kinds of political movements seeking to express their demands. It is important to note that Taksim Square is a symbolic place for the labour movement in Turkey because of The May Day massacre in 1977. Indeed, the last 10 years witnessed the attempts of the Labour Movement to celebrate May Day in Taksim Square (these celebrations have been forbidden since 1977). During some of those years, the government banned the celebrations in the Square and police forces used violence in order to stop workers from trying to reach the Square; in some other years, the government allowed the demonstrations. These events were attended by hundred of thousands of individuals, making Istanbul May Day the second most massive May Day of the Earth after the one in Habana, Cuba. Taksim Square, and the Gezi Park within the Square, was also the central reason for the 2013 June Uprising aimed at preventing the demolition of Gezi Park and its replacement with a Shopping Mall. The June Uprising was the most massive mobilization of people in Turkish political history.
In order to prevent May Day celebrations, apart from deploying thirty-nine-thousand policemen,, the Istanbul Mayor also banned public transport, in order to prevent people from gathering at the Central Square. People could not reach their workplaces, tourists could not reach their hotels. Basically, an undeclared state of emergency was put in place in the city.
The organizing committee of May Day, composed of DISK (Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey), KESK (Confederation of Trade Unions of Public Employees), TMMOB (Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects) and TTB (Turkish Medical Association), protested the government’s decision to ban the May Day demonstrations and police’s attempts to supress people’s resistance to the ban.
People who gathered at Sisli and Besiktas (districts close to the Square) were attacked by police forces. The clashes began at 8 am and went on all day. The police attacked small and larger groups of protesters who gathered to march on the Square.
The government and PM Erdogan are attempting to polarize society, and they use continuous violence against all kinds of opposition to continue their authoritarian rule. Despite the constitutional right to organize peaceful protests anywhere, and the formal right of freedom of speech, and despite the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights[1] that recognizes the legal right of people to celebrate May Day at Taksim Square, AKP Government insists on banning the opposition’s democratic rights to their demands with the use of excessive violence.
It should also be noted that there have been similar bans on May Day celebrations in previous years. However, I will analyse 2014 May Day as a part of the general social mobilization which had begun with the April 2013 movement, and reached its peak with the June Uprising. After the June Uprising, there have been many waves of protests, such as mobilizations against the bans on social media, and the march of over 1 million people to the funeral of the 15 year old boy who was shot dead by the police during the June Uprising. Following these events, it was believe by government officials and their spokespeople in the media that if people were able to enter Taksim Square during May Day Celebrations, they would try to re-conquer the Gezi Park, pitch up tents once again like the ones in Ukraine and Egypt and would refuse to leave the Park until the Presidential Elections.

The Historical Background: The AKP Government

From the standpoint of politics, it is important to analyse why the Turkish Government insists on banning May Day celebrations, and the reasons of the AKP Government to distance itself from a reformist image and suppress increasing opposition within the country at risk of being isolated internationally. I will provide a short historical background for these facts.
The military government, which formed on 12th September 1980 through a coup d’état, worked very hard to suppress all leftist movements in the country. All organizations were banned; thousands of people were arrested and more than ten thousands were detained. The new system occupied all spheres of public life, from the political system, to the education system to the workplaces in order to avoid the formation of organizing and make unionizing extremely difficult. The military regime also shifted from welfare state to neo-liberal reforms and introduced a new economic system which was extremely pro-business and against labour rights.
By 1980, Turkey was part of the general global tendency of shifting to neo-liberal reforms and opening its domestic market. After 40 years of neo-liberal reforms such as privatization, introduction of more flexible working relations, the expansion of precarious working conditions, the increasing dominance of Transnational Corporations over the national economy, and the continuous oppression of the labour/people movements, it is possible to establish a link between the current social movement in Turkey and the social movements at global level.
The elected governments , which followed the military junta, internalized the logic of the coup d’état, preserving its main characteristics. However, the ‘90s were marked by several turmoils. On the one hand, the civil war with the Kurdish separatist nationalist movement intensified, on the other continuous economic crises started emerging during the following decade up to 2001. Insistence on privatization and neo-liberal reforms worsened the economic situation. Coalitions and political fractions within the ruling elite made it more difficult to sustain a stable well-functioning political system. In 2001, Turkey faced a huge economic crisis that caused the three main parties in the governing coalition to lose their representation in the parliament because of their inability to surpass the 10% threshold. Two of the three parties (DSP and ANAP) collapsed and lost their credibility in the civil society. After the crisis, the IMF formulated a program which accentuated privatization and precarious working conditions, together with a stricter control of financial and banking system.
The AKP (Justice and Development Party) was formed on August 2001 by cadres of the former Islamist party (Fazilet Partisi) banned by the Constitutional Court. The founders of AKP (R. T. Erdogan, Prime Minister, and Abdullah Gül, President) claimed that they had undergone a political change and would thus accept a conservative democracy with moderate Islamic ideology. Enjoying huge support from the US and the EU ,as well as from the media, they could come to government in November 2002 while the rest of traditional parties were suffering a legitimacy crisis due to the severe economic crisis.

The Rise and Downfall of the AKP

AKP maintained the IMF program of the previous government, enjoyed the opportunity of the relative peace in the Kurdish issue (due to the imprisonment of the PKK’s[2] leader Öcalan in 1999) and presented itself as a reformist party against the so-called “forces of status quo”, indicated in the traditional Kemalist military, judiciary and civil bureaucracy that were against the AKP government because of its Islamist roots[3]. This “reformism” was supported by the US and the EU because the opposite faction had suspicious attitude towards the US because of its Middle East policies (Turkish Military’s objection to the USA’s Iraq Invasion was criticized by the US officials) and towards the EU (because of its support to Islamist government). The AKP also found favourable international economic conditions according to which foreign capital and short term debts could be directed to the Turkish economy which provided high interest rates for “foreign investors”.
Therefore, in the first five years of the AKP government, everything seemed to go well. They could enjoy support from the US and the EU, they could receive foreign capital-debt easily, could implement IMF’s economic package, and could show signs of high economic growth. The Kurdish issue was evolving in a relatively peaceful manner in comparison to the violence of the ‘90s. The AKP was acting as a reformist democratic party gaining support from the left and right liberal intellectuals, from media and business groups. Support was also obtained through the “show trials” against cadres of Kemalist bureaucrats in military, judiciary and executive organs of state, allegedly discovered organizing  a coup d’état against the elected government. Thus, the AKP government was able to strengthen its position. It also succeeded in privatizing all state owned enterprises, distributing state owned estates to the profit-seeking business groups and in introducing even more precarious working conditions (Sönmez, 23.06.2013).
However, this picture began to change during the second half of the twelve year-long rule of the AKP Government. Given its successes and strength, the AKP gained more confidence and was able to claim that it represented “the will of the nation”. This feeling of power, together with the weakening of the bureaucratic opposition, resulted in a more arrogant way of doing politics. The AKP started refusing demands from all kinds of opposition. The government started intervening on the mechanisms of the state in a less subtle way by leaving behind the reformist image. The AKP began to act in a more authoritarian way, legitimizing their decisions through references to the Islamic ideology, cutting its links with more liberal intellectuals, and fostering neo-liberal policies (Erdemol, 2013, p. 9).
Economic conditions started deteriorating due to the global financial crisis characterized by lower growth rates, more unemployment, and worse working conditions threatening the labour classes. Similar problems occurred on the side of the Kurdish issue. Because the Kurdish movement was dissatisfied by the gap between the promises and the actions, armed conflict started once again and induced the government to accept hidden negotiations with the imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan, causing suspect and anger both in the Kurdish movement and in the left and right Turkish nationalist-Kemalist movement (Müftüoğlu, 16.06.2013; Kocadağ, 2013, p 8). Additionally, the “show trials” against military and civil Kemalist bureaucracy started to be exposed as resulting from controversial, unlawful, and faked evidences. The AKP government’s Islamist projects, their intention to change the education system according to Islamic ideology, and their arrogant way of implementing such changes without any consultation with the opposition triggered the anger of the secular masses. Finally, international support to the AKP started to be questioned. Turkey’s “active” Middle East policies, the country’s open support to the Muslim Brotherhood, its intervention in the domestic politics of the Arab countries, and its logistical support to Al Qaeda’s militants in Syrian civil war were questioned by the Obama Administration and the EU became more suspicious about the AKP’s rule (EC Progress Report, 2013; Sönmez, 29.07.2013)
In addition, the AKP began to employ more police violence towards their opponents. To cite just some examples preceding the June Resistance, police violence was enacted towards trade unions and workers willing to celebrate the May Day 2013 in Taksim Square. During April, the police constantly attacked with pepper gas and water cannons those who protested against the demolition of the first historical Turkish Cinema, the Emek Sineması (to be replaced with a shopping mall!), including famous Turkish actors and Costa Gavras. Police violence was enacted against many different groups of protestors, including feminist organizations, youth movements, and football fans/ultras. It is widely said among opponents that all members of opposition will taste pepper gas at least once in their lives.
PM Erdoğan’s strategy has been to polarize the society in order to gain support for the government and preserve the party’s unity. He labelled protestors as “they” and emphasized divisions between “them and us”.

Split within the Ruling Coalition, Corruptions and Local Elections

The June Uprising marked the beginning of the downfall of the AKP Government. The AKP Government’s hegemony was challenged, and its legitimacy began to be questioned within the country and internationally. International media organs, the EU, and the US Administration began to criticize Erdogan Government in an open way. These criticisms resulted in divisions within the government and the coalition.
The AKP Government is made of a single party; however the AKP is also a grand coalition representing various political groups from the centre right liberals, to nationalists and Islamists. In addition, various Islamist fractions compete against each other within the Party to conquer positions in the party, and in the bureaucracy.
Some influential journalists, columnists, liberal intellectuals, some AKP’s MPs, who had been supporting AKP since its foundation, began to criticize the authoritarian style of Erdoğan. The greatest shock for the coalition arrived from the separation of an influential Islamist group headed by Fettullah Gülen who is based in Pennsylvania, US. This group is very well known in Turkey and globally. Their strategy is to educate young people for bureaucratic positions, in order to influence policy-making process of the state. This group actively supported the AKP Government. They were implicated in the “show trials” against civil and military Kemalist bureaucracy.
On  December the 25th, the famous prosecutors of highly debatable “show trials” raised a series of new cases against the government by exposing secret voice-telephone recordings of PM Erdogan, of Ministers and famous pro-government business groups, and showing concrete evidences of millions of euros corruption scandals. Spontaneously, the influential Gülen’s media group began to criticize Erdoğan as a corrupted leader. This was a signal of the shims within the party. The fight within the “new state” exposed corruptions and bribery scandals. People could learn how Erdoğan had ordered media employers to dismiss critical journalists and columnists from their newspapers and, how Erdoğan and his family members received bribery by distributing state’s proprieties to certain business groups etc.
In an ordinary, democratic country, under such circumstances, Government and/or Ministries would resign and defend themselves in legal courts. However, instead of answering such claims, PM Erdoğan once again initiated a propaganda campaign suggesting that what as taking place was a plot and coup against the elected government and against the “will of the nation”. He also accused Gülen to having formed a “parallel state” within state and to collaborate with foreign forces to overthrow the legitimate government. Erdoğan’s ability to mobilize people and state mechanisms together with a massive propaganda was able to work for a while. He was thus able to preserve the unity of his party and public support. The government also passed important acts which increased its control over the judiciary system and the intelligence, changing the so-called autonomous structure of the judicial system. These acts were criticized by the opposition and international actors as a sign of personal dictatorship of Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s tactics to polarize society, create enemies, mobilize masses and changing public agenda with different themes were used once again just before three important elections, (the local elections on 28th March, the Presidential elections in August 2014 and the general elections in 2015). These elections are determinant for the fate of the political career of Erdoğan. Erdoğan aims to resist all the corruption scandals and, by preserving public support, becoming President so to save himself from the public scandals.
It seems that during the local elections, the tactics of Erdoğan worked well. The local elections were interpreted by Erdoğan as a vote of confidence. The AKP was able to preserve most of its political strongholds arriving to the 43%. However in almost all the cities, there were strong claims of electoral fraud with strong evidences. In many cities where there were a strong opposition, the electricity systems was affected by technical problems potentially creating favourable conditions for fraud. However despite such claims of fraud, the AKP lost more than 2 million of votes and decreased from 50 % to 43 %. This election also showed that despite social mobilizations, the parliamentary opposition faces difficulties to join with social movements and to take advantage of the government’s isolation and corruption cases.


From this perspective, it is possible to understand the reasons of the Government to ban May Day demonstrations and use violence against opposition. Erdoğan aims to use such protests as an evidence of plots and intervention of foreign forces contrary to the economic growth and stability of the country.
On the other hand, movements are becoming more organised and more experienced. They are now better able to mobilize and challenge government’s oppression. Erdoğan may preserve support by showing that oppositions are “evil” but this tactic may not preserve him from further schisms within the party.
PM Erdoğan is a charismatic figure which offers unity to his party. There is no an alternative leader in the AKP who may be as influential as him. However, for the oppositions, which during local elections reached the 57%, may also feel more united by his presence and maybe become able to put aside ideological differences.
In comparison to previous May Day celebrations, this year there was excessive police violence, with the deployment of thirty-nine-thousand polices, the use pepper gas, and bans for public transportation. Clashes went on during all day. However, participation was lower than expected because many people couldn’t reach the central areas of the city. There were also debates within the opposition about the fact that Erdoğan needs enemies to preserve its strength. Fights with the police could be thus instrumental for his presidential campaign. Many people did not also join May Day protests with such motivation.
May Day 2014 in Turkey was a day of  violence. Ten thousands of people demanded freedom and democracy and clashed with police. Such waves of social mobilization will be also seen in the future.. Since June 2013, the AKP is aiming to maintain its support by polarizing society in different factions. Despite the huge governmental propaganda, there are schisms within the party and the AKP is losing votes. Erdoğan’s decisions during the Presidential elections and the general elections will impact on the future of the country.


European Commission, October 2013, Turkey 2013 Progress Report.
Erdemol, Mustafa K., 2013, Gezi Parkı Direnişi, Küçük Bahçede Büyük Kıyamet. Yazılama Yayınevi, İstanbul.
Kocadağ, Arif, July 2013. Taksim Meydan Okuması. İsyan Edin, Birleşin, Örgütlenin!. Umut Yayımcılık, İstanbul 2013.
Müftüoğlu, Oğuzhan. 16.06.2013, Gezi Eski Kalıpları Çöpe Attı. Akşam Gazetesi. Radikal, 27.11.2012, AİHM, 1 Mayıs davasında DİSK ve KESK’i haklı buldu, Accessed 02.05.2014
Sönmez, Mustafa, 23.06.2013. Bir Meta Olarak İstanbul. Accessed 20.10.2013.
Sönmez, Mustafa. 29.07.2013. AKP’nin Dış Desteği Çökerken. Accessed 20.10.2013


[1] 2008 May Day was also banned by the Government and Organizing Committee of the May Day demonstrations took this case to the European Court of Human Rights. ECHR decided that government has responsibility to protect people while they would like to use their right to organize peaceful protests, therefore government’s reasons to ban the demonstration is not valid. Turkish Republic was sentenced to pay 1000 Euro to DISK and KESK (Radikal, 27.11.2012).
[2] PKK: Kurdistan Workers Party, the separatist party for the independence of Kurdish region, wages armed struggle since 1984.
[3] The division within the ruling elite is generally analysed from two perspectives. The first is the centre-periphery theory of famous sociologist Şerif Mardin, which defends that there is a conflict among centre and periphery. Centre is composed of modern civil and military bureaucracy and “Istanbul capital”-big business having commercial relations with multinationals, uniting among Kemalist ideology-principles of the Founder of the modern Republic Kemal Atatürk whereas periphery is the traditional bourgeoisie and landowners in Anatolia defending a moderate version of Sunni Islam ideology and conservative values. Therefore social democrat Republican Peoples Party (CHP) is said to represent centre while Justice and Development Party (AKP) and predecessor parties represent periphery. A second theory divides ruling elite into two ideologies, namely Turkish nationalists and Islamists. These two theories explain power relations and struggles of modern political history of Turkey since 19th century according to these divisions.