In Turkey: Tapping the Hidden Potential for Resistance

Hundreds Become Hundreds of Thousands Standing Up to Brutal Repressive Regime

July 17, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


On July 9, in the face of extreme repression, up to a million people flooded the streets of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, demanding that the fascist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan end the state of emergency imposed after a failed military coup last July. In so doing, they cut through the suffocating atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and accommodation that has gripped the country over the last year.


Since 2003, Erdoğan was first prime minister, and then president of Turkey. He combined extreme Turkish nationalism (known as “Kemalism” after the founder of modern Turkey) and Islamism (organizing society on patriarchal, misogynist, and anti-scientific religious tenets), with a program of concentrating more and more power in the executive branch of government and in his own hands.

This was deeply polarizing. Erdoğan had been the target of massive protest by progressive forces in big cities, as well as resistance based among the 15 million Kurds (a bitterly oppressed national minority) living mainly in Turkey’s mountainous southeast. But Erdoğan had strong support among religious fundamentalists, and in the vast rural areas, towns, and small cities.

In July 2016, a section of the military attempted a coup. Erdoğan was able to mobilize his own supporters in the streets to oppose it, and faced with the threat of military takeover, most of Erdoğan’s bourgeois liberal, as well as more progressive opponents stood with him against the coup, which was crushed.

Over 200 died in the attempted coup, but Erdoğan referred to it as a “gift from God” because it created a temporary political situation where he had broad support both in the ruling class and among the masses. Erdoğan seized on this to make a huge leap in implementing fascist rule.

Using the pretext of rooting out coup supporters, Erdoğan quickly broadened his attack by equating the just struggle of the Kurdish people with the military coup. Kurdish regions faced heavy military repression and at least a dozen leaders of Kurdish political parties were arrested. And Erdoğan went even wider, targeting his ruling class and military opponents, journalists, artists, and intellectuals. 150,000 teachers, professors, journalists, judges, civil servants, and others were fired; 50,000 people were arrested and thrown into brutal prisons where torture is rampant; over 100 news outlets were either seized or shut down.

The main bourgeois liberal, nationalist, and Islamist parties all either supported this or went quietly along, but there was important resistance. In October, the government extended the state of emergency for another 90 days—500 protested this in Ankara and in Istanbul, answering the call of trade unions and smaller left-wing parties. In the Kurdish region there were clashes both between the military and armed forces of Kurdish political parties, and between police and Kurdish youth. Even soccer games became arenas of potential protest, so the Turkish government banned the selling of jerseys with the word “Kurdistan” on them.

Though these outbreaks were extremely important in challenging both the fascist state, and challenging the broader masses to stand up against it, they were still relatively small, sporadic, and confined to a few big cities and the Kurdish area.

Fascist Referendum and Outbreaks of Resistance

To consolidate and give legitimacy to his power, Erdoğan held a national referendum in April 2017 on constitutional amendments that gave him direct legal control over both the courts and the legislature. Supported by another right-wing party, Erdoğan stacked the deck, using his control over the media to fill the airwaves with “Yes” propaganda, and organizing much vote fraud as well. Nonetheless, his victory (with 51 percent of the vote) did reflect the support of a section of Turkish society.

The referendum victory gave the government vastly more power and legitimacy, but it also sparked growing outrage and protest. Right after the referendum, there were two nights of intense protest in Istanbul, with thousands chanting: “We are shoulder to shoulder against fascism” in the face of heavy militarized police presence. There were smaller actions in cities around the country, some of which were attacked by police.

In Ankara, two teachers who had been fired in the crackdown went on a hunger strike in protest. 75 days later, as their strike continued and became a focal point, and police broke into their homes to arrest them, one of them tweeted: “Political department police are trying to enter the house. They are now breaking the door. Damn fascism! Long live our hunger strike resistance! We want our jobs back! We have not and will not surrender!”

The crackdown widened to include the mainstream parties who had supported both the suppression of the coup and the crackdown on the Kurds, but were (mildly) opposed to the constitutional amendments which pretty much eliminated any pretense of democracy. In May 2017, the regime arrested a CHP (Republican People’s Party) member of parliament and sentenced him to 25 years in jail. 1

At that point, the CHP, the largest opposition party, did decide to speak up, and put out an ambitious call for a 280 mile march from the capital city of Ankara to Istanbul—the boldest act of mass defiance since the coup.


On June 15, hundreds gathered in Ankara to march against the seemingly overwhelming power of the state. This required real courage, as Erdoğan openly compared this nonviolent protest to the armed coup attempt that he had drowned in blood, saying: “The coup soldiers had their F-16s and tanks; Kılıçdaroğlu [the leader of CHP] has his march.” Erdoğan said the march was “illegal” and that he was only allowing it as “a favor.”

Nevertheless, the march set out on its arduous journey, traveling 15 miles a day along highways, stalked by Turkish police (who claimed to be “protecting” them), across open country and over mountains in the summer heat. At least one activist died of a heart attack on the way.

But this courage and determination began to tap into the vast reservoir of previously suppressed hatred of the regime. It soon grew to over a thousand, including some prominent artists and performers. After two weeks on the road, it had topped 10,000 people and then grew to 15,000.

Once it left Ankara, the march went through the rural heartland of Erdoğan support, Turkey’s “Red States,” about which a marcher commented: “I would never in a million years have even thought I’d drive through.” And the march did meet sharp opposition, as Erdoğan supporters in some places lined the road to shout abuse, while others dumped manure in the march route.

But there were also hundreds of people in these areas who were emboldened by the march, who flashed victory signs from their cars or applauded from their balconies. No doubt it left much greater political ferment and debate in its wake, which is favorable for winning over those who are now intoxicated with Erdoğan.

By the time the march reached the furthest outskirts of Istanbul it had grown to 30,000, but even then there was grave doubt and fear about what would happen when they entered the city: Would they be attacked and dispersed? Would people turn out to join them?

Erdoğan made a call to not attack the march, and into this fresh opening surged hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom no doubt only decided what to do in the last hours. The rally—at the prison that held the jailed CHP member—was jubilant. One speaker declared: “This is a rebirth for us, for our country, for our children. We will revolt against injustice.”

A Hard-fought Breakthrough, the Challenges, and the Importance of Leadership

People are right to be jubilant, and this was a hard-fought breakthrough. But it is also important to be sober and scientific. First, the Ankara-to-Istanbul march was a bold idea at the right moment and was able to bring together very broad sections of people, ranging from radical forces determined to drive out this regime to mainstream parties who vacillate between going along and conciliating with the fascists, and organizing some resistance to them. But now that a broad opposition movement has surfaced, so will those differences, and different forces will sharply contend over both the direction and the goals the movement should take.

Even more important, the Erdoğan fascist regime is still in power, wielding tremendous armed forces and a significant mass base; it is not going to give up or fade away. In fact, a few days after the Istanbul rally, another 7,348 public sector workers were fired as part of the ongoing purge. And on July 15—the one-year anniversary of the coup-attempt—Erdoğan mobilized hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, around the country to mark his victory, and he used the occasion to more tightly bind the masses there to his reactionary ideology, and to ominously threaten his opponents. Referring to those who fought for his regime, Erdoğan said that “God has promised ... those who fight in the way of God or in the way of their nation ... paradise.” And he warned that the purges and trials were far from over, and that he would “decapitate the traitors” and that “none of them will be left in this country without getting their punishment.”

So this will likely be a period of great political ferment and debate among the people, and very intense back-and-forth struggle with the reactionary forces. The Ankara-to-Istanbul march revealed not only the great breadth of opposition, but also the willingness of tens of thousands to put a lot on the line to fight it. And this whole situation poses the question of what kind of society do people want for Turkey.

But in this context, the question of leadership is crucial. If those most determined to see a new and liberated Turkey—and a new and liberated world—work to scientifically sum up what has changed and how to further transform things, and take that into the swirl of struggle and debate, there is a good basis to—through twists and turns—forge and lead a determined struggle to drive out the fascist regime and to open up new questions and new possibilities about bringing a truly emancipatory society into being, rather than settle for going back to the deeply oppressive conditions that marked Turkey before Erdoğan even came on the scene.


1. The CHP had actually supported the earlier arrest of Kurdish parliamentarians, once again illustrating the profound truth that Martin Niemöller summed up from his experience in Nazi Germany: “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a communist…. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up because I was not a Jew.… And then they came for me, and by then there was no one left to speak out for me.”) [back]




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