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After Erdoğan’s Victory, Movements in Turkey Must Fight Beyond the Ballot Box

Freedom cannot be tied down to the ballot box, but this is what happened in the aftermath of the Gezi uprising.

Protesters celebrate on their way to Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, during the Occupy Gezi movement in June, 2013.

Ten years ago, in June 2013, I was tear-gassed and chased down city streets by the riot police in Istanbul alongside tens of thousands of others participating in a nationwide uprising in Turkey.

Our crime was to assemble for a demonstration in Taksim Square after the eviction of the occupation and the spread of the uprising that had begun at Gezi Park. Pushed back into the alleyways of Istiklal, we were hunted by militarized Robocops aiming their canister guns at our faces. That month in June, some of us would survive — with blinded eyes, fractured skulls and paralyzed spines, while some of us would be killed by state-sanctioned violence in broad daylight.

Nonetheless, that summer, in tear gas-filled streets and at public forums in countless cities, we exercised our freedom to disobey — our freedom to act and to live, however briefly, another way. Our practices of mutual aid, trials in direct democracy, confrontation with the state — this was our experience of freedom no ballot box could contain.

In May this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan again prevailed in the presidential election after a run-off with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in which neither candidate secured more than 50 percent of the vote. Many observers viewed the election as a referendum on Erdoğan’s more than 20-year reign. He has since become the longest-serving leader in Turkish political history. Parliamentary elections were held in association with the first round of voting, with the ruling Justice and Development Party achieving a majority of seats in alliance with two smaller parties.

Graffiti in Galata, Istanbul, in September 2013 that reads, “I can’t trust the ballot box.”
Graffiti in Galata, Istanbul, in September 2013 that reads, “I can’t trust the ballot box.”

In September 2013, I saw this graffiti around the Galata Tower of Istanbul, when the uprising that nearly toppled Erdoğan had begun to subside. The graffiti, “Sandığı gözüm kesmiyor,” or “I can’t trust the ballot box,” humorously commented on electoral politics in the context of an authoritarianism that liberally prescribes — and concurrently wins — elections.

It is difficult to express with one sentence the many senses of this script in English. “I can’t trust the ballot box” partly conveys its meaning, yet something remains untranslatable in it. Nevertheless, we can see in this graffiti the powerful expression of an experience of freedom that, once tasted, displaces electoral politics, which can neither contain nor maintain it. Impossible to explain, our collective visceral and vitalizing experience of freedom remains the precious gift of the Gezi uprising.

If freedom is, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt once argued, “a state of being manifest in action,” elections are incapable of generating or even grasping it. Freedom cannot be tied down to the ballot box. This, however, is precisely what happened in the aftermath of the Gezi uprising. The revolutionary energies of the moment were channeled into elections, obliging both the liberal and the authoritarian invitation alike to exercise freedom at scheduled times, to measure the will of the people by the ballot box.

When the law is used to criminalize dissent so consistently, so thoroughly, so inescapably, we are left with only a few options.

The Gezi uprising wrote other scripts on the streets — sandığı gözüm kesmiyor is only one. The movement marched and danced to the contagious joy, brilliant humor and explosive creativity of a promising “beginning.” From balconies and rooftops, we screamed: “Bu daha başlangıç. Mücadeleye devam!” “This is just the beginning. The struggle continues!” Today, a decade after the Gezi uprising, who in word, deed or spirit is continuing the struggle?

True, we have been criminalized, jailed, fired, threatened, wounded and exiled. For one, Turkish human rights defender and philanthropist Osman Kavala is now in prison serving an aggravated life sentence for “attempting to overthrow the government by force” in connection with the 2013 protests. If the Gezi uprising was a crime, then millions of people participated in it: “Hepimiz Gezi’deydik. Hepimiz oradaydık” “We were all at Gezi. We were all there.” I have argued elsewhere that we must now revise this slogan: “We were all at Gezi. We were all there. We are all criminals.”

When the law is used to criminalize dissent so consistently, so thoroughly, so inescapably, we are left with only a few options. A defiant one is to declare our common action criminal indeed, to embrace criminality according to the prevalent law of the land and to do so in acts of collective disobedience to the law. In Turkey today, and in “liberal democracies” like the United Kingdom where “disruptive” demonstrations are increasingly rendered criminal, we must be able to say: Yes, if this is the law, very well then, we are all criminals.

Given the global rise of authoritarianism, or a “new fascism” as described by philosopher Judith Butler, the insistence that “no one is illegal,” that we are all “innocent” will make less and less sense. Across the world, from Russia to the U.K., from Turkey to Hungary, from India to France and Egypt, we will all taste criminality sooner or later, to the extent that we exercise our freedom to dissent, protest, rise up and transgress. In this situation, our very criminality, actual and potential, can ground our solidarity within and across national borders.

Elections provoke what cultural critic Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when something we desire is actually an obstacle to our flourishing. Optimism is cruel, Berlant finds, when the scene that ignites a sense of possibility — say, the possibility of freeing political prisoners like Selahattin Demirtaş, Çigdem Mater, and others in Turkey through elections — “makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.”

It is the liberal attachment to legality and the corresponding captivation by electoral politics which facilitates such cruel optimism, enabling us to expect every time that this time things will be different, that this time things will improve. Since the Gezi uprising, is this not what we have experienced, one election to the next, court case after court case?

Activists rally during a “Feminist Night March,” on March 8, 2020, Istanbul.
Activists rally during a “Feminist Night March,” on March 8, 2020, Istanbul.

What happens when such optimism unravels, as is our situation today? We return to the basics and begin once again. We organize on the streets, at workplaces, in theaters, schools and universities, in collectives, forums, unions, movements — visibly and invisibly — we organize and struggle for life. As Feminist Night March activists insisted on March 8 in Istanbul this year: “Birbirimizden vazgeçmiyoruz.” “We are not giving up on each other.”

This we, constituted in action, is where we the beginning begins again.

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