Labour Day in Turkey: ‘proportional force’ and irresponsible leadership

May 1. Taksim Square is empty but lots of people are nursing some serious wounds. Workers have traditionally been denied access to Taksim Square on this day, until three years ago that is, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) declared it a holiday and allowed people to freely celebrate their festival in the Square. People thought that democracy had won out finally, and celebrating Labour Day in Taksim came to stand in symbolically as a break with the old, authoritarian and repressive mindsets of the past.

This year, this was not to be the case. Taksim Square has undergone massive urban transformation thanks to a state-sponsored project that will turn the square into a traffic-free space. Therefore, the AKP banned entrance to the square, on the basis that celebrations might result in damage and accidents due to ongoing construction. The labour unions for their part were intransigent. Negotiations bore no fruit, but what we witnessed was the swift return of the repressive state along with irresponsible leadership on both sides. What could have prompted a government, famous for its democratization and peace efforts, to use force against its own citizens? Why should the labor unions behave in the way they did?

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First, democratization in Turkey is not a complete illusion, but it is flawed for a variety of reasons, including the AKP’s conservative approach, and a weak, ideologically-driven opposition. Nevertheless, if examined carefully, the core problem has arisen alongside the improvement and implementation of human rights. Despite massive amendments to the law in the last decade, human rights laws are still not citizen-centered and only facilitate security forces’ undemocratic measures against citizens. This is reminiscent of old state practices in the 1980s and 1990s with a slight difference; the rise of the police as a force in the country at a time when civil-military relations were undergoing a fundamental redesign. Institutionally, the police department did not hesitate to deploy violence to turn citizens into obedient subjects, but resistance compelled the police to invent more sophisticated methods like using tear gas and “proportional force.”

Perhaps Turkey has never used tear gas in its 90-year history as much as it has done in the last ten years. The previous Minister of Interior, Idris Sahin, went so far as to state that tear gas was natural, of high quality and not fatal. Indeed, it almost killed two people last Wednesday; Dilan, a 17 year old, high-school student, and Meral, a 27 year old, trainee teacher, who tried to go to Taksim Square to celebrate Labour Day.  The logic was not to allow people to enter the square for whatever reason. It seems the police did not only try to prevent people accessing Taksim Square but attacked them in order to deter entrance. The large number of police officers brought to Taksim from other provinces reinforced the impression of an AKP government determined to crushing the Labour Day initiative. Worse was to come when the governor of Istanbul declared that both Dilan and Meral were militants and members of marginal groups. This attempt to discredit them undermines the definition of citizenship in Turkey, obeying a logic whereby if the state can prove disobedience, you can be denied citizen status.  Proportional force came into play at this stage. This vague term will probably help policemen and decision makers alike not to escape punishment, because legally nobody knows how to assess “proportional force.” For now, the only thing that is clear is that democratization has not guaranteed an improvement in human rights standards or the implementation of the rule of law.

It is easy, however, to blame the state and the AKP government for what happened. Yet, the labour unions were equally unwilling to find a common ground on the Labour Day celebrations. Moreover, although they encouraged labourers to go to the square, many trade union leaders did not show up. This can simply be viewed as irresponsible leadership. Yet, why would they behave in this way? The answer relates to the cultural war ongoing between the AKP and anti-AKP trade unions. The AKP’s neoliberal economic policies have crushed many trade unions and political restrictions have debilitated their already weakening political power. Thanks to such factors and their traditional leftist and secular stance, these trade unions have not been able to play an important part in Turkish politics. This ideological stand-off will be costly for Turkey and has borne few if any positive results. Trade union resistance could be stronger and more efficient if they resisted the AKP government’s undemocratic measures through democratic means rather than through a rigid ideological stance.

Overall, this Labour Day was a shame for Turkey. Blaming one side or another side does not help us find a solution to problems. The state’s use of force cannot be justified while the unimaginative leadership of the labor unions should be recognized by their own supporters. Yet, nothing justifies or legitimizes the violence against Dilan and Meral who are in a coma at the time of writing. Our prayers are with them: let’s hope that they can have their lives restored to them.