ayıptır söylemesi, yıllar önce doktora tezimi Türkiye'de toplu siyasal hareketler üzerine yazmıştım. Türkiye'de rejim sorunu gibi genel bir konuda düşünür ve bunu bir tez konusu haline nasıl getireceğime kafa yorarken, 1950'lerin ikinci yarısında, menderes hükümetinden hoşnut olmayanların ve radyolarda sürekli "vatan cephesine katılanlar"a dair çoğunlukla düzmece listeler okunmasını protesto etmek isteyenlerin "radyo dinlemeyenler cemiyeti" adında dernekler kurmaya başladıklarını okudum bir yerde. ampul yandı! gezi hareketi vesilesiyle, bu eski metinden bir-iki kuple sunmak isterim.
collective political action in turkey - a primer*
Collective political action in Turkey has a long history. Student movements go back to the late 1870s, to the days of the First Constitutional era. The period of 1923-1950, however, provided the true background for collective actions in the next three decades. Under the leadership of Atatürk and İnönü, the youth was given the duty of guarding the regime, but the regime had little trust in students or their organizations. The National Turkish Student Union (Milli Türk Talebe Birliği) was founded in 1924, as a result of the efforts of İbrahim Öktem, Tahsin Bekir Balta, and Nihat Üçüncü. The first president of the organization was İbrahim Öktem. Student organizations worked in line with the government until the end of the 1920s. The Law School Student Society organized a “Fellow Citizen, Speak Turkish” (“Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş”) campaign in February 1928; the NTSU organized a “Use Turkish Goods” (“Yerli Malı Kullan”) demonstration in April 1929. After its 1930 congress, the Union came into conflict with the government and was closed down for a short period. The government allowed the NTSU to function again, but took care to place certain individuals within the organization to follow its activities. The Union organized a “Speak Turkish” demonstration in March 1933. When the papers reported the attack on the Turkish cemetery in Deliorman, Bulgaria, on 17 April 1933, student groups gathered at the Bulgarian cemetery in İstanbul and put flowers on the graves. Organized by the NTSU, the students then marched to Taksim; eighty of them were taken into custody.
The 1940s saw an increase in the attempts of the government to “guide” student organizations. İstanbul University’s Student Union, for example, was a semi-governmental organization, with its president being selected by the rector among professors and assistant professors. The students were allowed to elect only the members of the executive committee. The Tan incident of December 1945 was directed to a great extent by the CHP (Republican People’s Party) government. Tan had a leftist outlook, and was highly critical of government policies after 1945, which attracted a great deal of reaction from writers such as Peyami Safa, Hakkı Tarık Us and Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın. Yalçın published an article in the daily Tanin entitled “Stand Up, the People of This Country” (“Bu Memleketin İnsanları, Ayağa Kalkın”), agitating for an attack on Tan and its writers in order to “shut them up”.
Acting under the orders of Prime Minister Şükrü Saraçoğlu and the CHP, university students attacked Tan’s print shop on 4 December 1945. A big crowd of ten thousand people had gathered in the Beyazıt Square earier in the day and marched to Cağaloğlu, shouting “Down with communism, down with the Sertels, long live the Republic of Turkey!” The physical damage inflicted on the printing machines was aimed at making it impossible for the newspaper to be printed again.
The NTSU was closed down again for a short while and re-opened in December 1947, and the Turkish National Student Federation (Türk Milli Talebe Federasyonu) was founded in 1948; both were regarded as serving the same function vis-a-vis the government.
Student activity during the Republican era before the 1950s never attained the level it would afterwards, mainly because there was no sufficient reason to evoke the “guardianship” of the youth. Atatürk (the Eternal Leader), and after him İnönü (the National Leader), had been there in person to guard the “Project.” The Republican People’s Party was the one institution trusted with Atatürk’s legacy. It was only after political power changed hands that the issue of protecting Atatürk’s reforms came to occupy the national agenda. The landslide election victories of the DP in 1950 and 1954 were met with great alarm by the CHP cadres, which was to be expected. Menderes was closely watched for possible slanders against Atatürk and especially for any attempt to change course away from secularism and Menderes obligingly provided ample occasion for worry. His policies of deriding the military and stifling the voice of opposition in general and university students in particular eventually led to the emergence of two groups of “guardians”: the youth and the military.
The CHP was an ally of the guardians during the last years of the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s; indeed, the party strongly supported students and İnönü, in his struggle against the increasingly repressive DP rule, repeatedly invoked Atatürk’s speeches in which he trusted the youth with the duty of protecting the regime. After 1965, however, the CHP was increasingly regarded as another party in the multi-party system.
The youth, as a group, was at the zenith of its power around 1960, strong enough to topple a government with the help of the military. It was downhill from then on: by 1971, the youth had lost almost all its credit as one of the guardians of the Project. Student organizations and para-military youth groups were actually seen as threats to the regime.
The military was thus left alone with the grave task of guarding the regime and the reforms. The unwillingness of the guardians to “retire”, or conversely, the inability of the regime to do without guardians, spelled out the predicament of Turkish democracy for the decades to come. It was this predicament that led to yet another coup in 1980 and to the reinstitution of the National Security Council as the locus of real decision-making. Even as these words are written, the role of the military in Turkish politics continues to be hotly debated.
Collective political action in Turkey has its universal characteristics as well as idiosyncrasies. Taken together, these form, as well as emerge from, a matrix of lingual relations that articulate certain key aspects of Turkish political culture. It is, of course, the idiosyncrasies that set the Turkish democratic experience apart from that of other countries; these are, therefore, of primary interest to the researcher. The universal features shared by other democracies are, however, just as revealing for the researcher interested in understanding the structure, functioning, and interrelations of Turkish politics. Studying collective political action and the modulations it has undergone through the years provides ample opportunities for such an understanding.
It is no great feat to observe that for decades after Atatürk’s death, Turkish politics continued to carry his mark, if not as a source of inspiration, then at least as a source of legitimation. The political rhetoric began to outgrow this over-dependence only in the 1990s, and intelligent debate without having to cite Atatürk’s authority (similar to one of the standard modes of religious argumentation, where either a sacred text or a holy person is invoked to “prove” a point – “Why?” “Because the Koran says so!”) or without having to position oneself contra Atatürk has only recently become possible, and that only occasionally. Collective political action carried this mark for much of the period under discussion, but showed signs of shedding it earlier than the rhetoric.
Indeed, most of the collective actions of the 1950s and 1960s involved Atatürk directly or indirectly. The attacks on his statues, busts, pictures, and photographs constituted the symbolic rebellion of long-repressed fundamentalists, still acting clandestinely, and either individually or in small groups for fear of persecution. This action created its counter-action: student organizations as well as groups of citizens and even the media took it upon themselves to erect more of those statues, in order to show the iconoclasts that the symbol they attacked would remain as the symbol of the country. Visits to the Anıtkabir also served to symbolically stress allegiance to Atatürk’s reforms.
The indirect involvement of Atatürk in the collective actions of these two decades, and a portion of the 1970s, was both more intricate and in a sense more fundamental. Atatürk’s most pertinent legacy in the case of collective action, for better or for worse, has been his designation of the guardians of the regime: the youth and the military. When the political power, having come into office as a result of democratic elections, grew ever more repressive to the degree of being authoritarian, stifling all dissent and criticism, and even attempting to hold the judiciary in its sway, the guardians stepped in. It was quite an unprecedented event: university students risked their lives to protest the government, and were backed by the military in many cases where they came into conflict with the security forces of the government. The papers announcing the coup ran headlines that stressed this coalition, and had photographs to prove it. The leaders of the coup themselves found it necessary to stress that Atatürk’s regime had been saved by the youth and the military acting together.
This experience, i.e. the fact that university students could actually play a big role in affecting regime change, or at least in toppling a government, had a huge effect on the student movements of the 1960s. Such success was rare in those years, and was never coupled with such a heavy-duty responsibility as guarding the republic. The whole era was marked by a Leftist rhetoric, and the possibility of a socialist revolution was much talked about. The 1961 Constitution was seen by many to allow for such a change. Naturally it was the university students who saw themselves as the advance guard of this revolution, and saw it as their duty to carry their nation forward towards a more just and liberated society. It was Atatürk again, cast as the first “socialist”, who lent legitimacy to this project.
At least the students thought so, and sought the alliance of the working class, in whose name they professed to be acting. This view, however, did not arouse much enthusiasm and sympathy among the other group of guardians, the military, and the beginning of the 1970s marked a major fallout of the two. Demonstrations, protests, and marches of the era often featured calls to the military to support the cause of –mostly- Leftist student groups. One of the most influential student organizations had lined out a strategy of bringing on a socialist revolution not through democratic means, but through joining forces with the military to overthrow the regime – it had been done once, why should it not be done again?
It was not to be. The realization that the military no longer regarded the university students as “coalition partners” came as a rude shock. Left to their own means, with the “powers that be” growing increasingly weary and wary of them, radical youth organizations began to get involved in violent contentious action. This was a natural continuation of the persuasion that revolution was possible only by force. In the meantime, the radical youth on the Right had gotten organized in a para-military fashion and was ready to take on the “commies.” Indications exist that clashes between the two groups were sponsored by political parties, and even by some echelons of the state.
Such escalation in violence was not unique to Turkey. In Spain, for example, a similar trajectory had been followed during the mid-1960s. The regime, faced with increased violence, tightened its grip and responded with increased repression, curtailing freedom of press and personal liberties, but could not succeed in containing contention. Violence escalated even further, and strikes spread like hay fire. At that stage, the political elites in Spain succeeded in doing something their Turkish counterparts would utterly fail at: in this environment, which provided “pressure of transgressive politics in the streets, in the factories, and in the mining regions”, Spain’s elites and counter-elites “managed the transition through a measured process of negotiation in conference rooms.”
As in Europe, the student movement in Turkey sought another ally in its collective action: the workers. Throughout much of the 1960s, the respective places of the two groups were hotly debated. Some theorists held that the student movement was meaningful only to the extent that it served the class struggle of the workers and that the students should not follow an agenda of their own. Others maintained that students could exist as a separate entity in the struggle against fascism and imperialism, although collaborating with workers was also necessary. Such class awareness gradually changed the nature of student protests and demonstrations. What began as voicing demands about schooling (tuition fees, conditions for passing courses and graduation, entrance into universities, etc.) became pronouncedly political with the introduction of the Cyprus issue, the minorities issue, the hunt for communists, and the frequent visits of the US 6th Fleet.
The forms of action undertaken by student organizations were not very original on the whole, involving the usual array of demonstrations, protests, marches, boycotts, and occupations. Some leitmotifs did emerge, however; the routes for marches took on a customary quality, both in İstanbul and Ankara; a number of squares were earmarked for demonstrations. The “Osmanpaşa” march was adapted to various occasions throughout the three decades, and became a staple of student actions. The national anthem was another staple, and often provided the activists a temporary sanctuary in the rush of events, because the police would stop upon hearing the anthem being sung.
The 1960s were also marked by the outburst of organization formation. In time, the multiplicity of organizations, often serving a similar clientele with similar aims, came to undermine those aims. Student associations kept discussing joining their organizations, but rarely succeeded. In fact, organization politics became so important that they took precedence over national politics, and intra-organizational power struggle often caused organizations to lose touch with the greater population and their priorities.
During the 1950s, actions with low-level organization were more prominent. The attacks on the symbols of the Republic, or more specifically on Atatürk’s statues, were a novel form of “negative collective action”, in the sense that they aimed to destroy rather than build. Implicitly, of course, most of these attacks were committed by religious fundamentalists who preferred a non-secular state. The extensive use of symbols, while serving the purposes of evading security forces, nonetheless predate the “new social movements” of the 1980s.
“Passive action”, while seemingly an oxymoron, could be considered as a novel contribution of the Turkish experience to the collective action literature. The “Radio Non-Listeners Association” and all the serious debate that followed its closing down is not only amusing, but it also offers a beautiful example of stretching the conventional modes of action to accommodate repressive measures. It is of course also telling that the regime could not tolerate even that, and chose to persecute an “inaction”, whose counterpart action was not mandatory. The heavy-handedness of governments with respect to freedom of expression, when coupled with an inability or disinclination to stop violent action, formed a peculiar political environment in Turkey after 1971.
Students and workers are the leading actors everywhere when it comes to collective action. Some disenfranchised segments of the middle classes, like shop owners or self-employed taxi drivers, may occasionally also be seen in demonstrations, usually for economic reasons. It is, however, less customary for the press and businessmen to engage in collective action - both groups usually prefer to wield indirect or covert influence. One of the main actors of the process leading to the coup in 1960 was the press, as acknowledged later by numerous politicians of the time, now retired. A number of newspapers, some local, some national, some individually, some together with other newspapers, actively protested the government, or organized campaigns, enlisting the support of the masses for their purposes. The paid advertisements of the TBIA exerted so much pressure on the Ecevit government in 1979 that the prime minister, though nonchalant at first, eventually had to resign.
Some issues had a recurring significance for collective action in Turkey; others proved to be specific for certain periods. Attacks on Atatürk’s statues, for example, were almost strictly the specialty of the 1950s; murdering columnists, that of the 1970s. The Cyprus issue kept coming up time and again, as did communism and irtica. Labor issues were almost never translated to collective action in the 1950s, but gained increasing salience in the next two decades.
After “politics as usual” was resumed in the second half of the 1980s, discussions of “civil society” gained prominence in Turkey, as elsewhere. Collective action until the end of the millennium showed a marked difference from the collective action of the preceding decades; issues, actors and types of action underwent considerable change. The collective actions of the 1990s had qualities that reflected the characteristics of their decade, as did their forerunners. Most noticeably, they were no longer performed in the name of the father, but rather in the name of the actors themselves.
The Susurluk Incident of 1996 brought on a type of protest that was once again a unique contribution to the literature: almost without any formal organization, thousands of households participated in, and eventually improvised, a collective action for an extended period of time. The “Aydınlık için Bir Dakika Karanlık” (A Minute’s Darkness for Light) movement that began in 1996 as a protest against the criminal involvement of the state spread rapidly throughout Turkey, with all sorts of people ranging from children to old ladies switching their house lights on and off for a minute at exactly the same time and then banging on their pots and pans. It was a massive and non-organized movement that the ruling coalition failed completely to comprehend.
The “Cumartesi Anneleri” (Mothers of Saturday) protest was another important instance of collective action of the 1990s, which still continues after 400 weeks. It was inspired by the Argentine mothers gathering in Plaza del Mayo in solidarity with their children and relatives who disappeared under the junta regime; the mothers in Turkey began gathering in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul on May 27, 1995, for a similar reason.
In the 2000s, the “Cumhuriyet Mitingleri” (Republic Demonstrations) that were held in a number of cities throughout Turkey prior to Presidential elections in July 2007, against the possibility of an “Islamist” candidate being chosen, galvanized hundreds of thousands of people. Although conventional in their form and manner of organization, these demonstrations constituted an important instance of collective action that was only partially organized by established political institutions.
The Gezi Movement of 2013 is likely to prove itself a novel and categorically different collective political action in Turkey’s history. Its actors, their demands, and the ways in which they voice their demands offer ample reason to believe that a paradigmatic shift has occurred in this area, and once again, the powers that be are at a loss understanding the true content and import of this movement.