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Flashpoint or Flash in a Pan? What to Expect in Turkey on Labor Day

Labor Day, or International Workers’ Day, is celebrated around the world on May 1, commemorating civil unrest and the fight for worker’s rights in the late 19th century. In Turkey, Labor Day has a history of unrest and violence. In 1977, 34 people were killed during Labor Day activities in Taksim Square, when unknown assailants opened fire on a crowd. Since then, this day has been marked with tension, notably over access to Taksim, and has often seen clashes between police and demonstrators.

This year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blocked entree to Taksim, suggesting alternate venues for demonstrations that are farther from the city center and that lack Taksim’s historical significance, saying “We have always been on the side of the workers. I celebrate the day of labor and solidarity, but we cannot accept shops being damaged,” and warned labor unions to respect the ban, declaring: “Everybody should act within the boundaries of the law. You are not the law.”

In Turkey’s tense political environment, it’s possible for this to become another flashpoint much as Gezi Park did last year and teenager Berkin Elvan’s funeral did in March. As Gareth Jenkins, Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Silk Road Studies Program and a consultant to the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), reports from Istanbul:

Everybody is expecting clashes but it is not clear how serious they will be. The decision is purely political and everybody knows it. The Istanbul Governor has announced today that the main ferry ports across the Bosphorus into the center of the city will be closed tomorrow, as will the main cross-Bosphorus buses. People will still try to get into Taksim and there will be clashes with the police.

The composition of the demonstrators is going to be narrower than during the Gezi protests. The main trade unions are going to try to get into Taksim, as are leftist and Kurdish parties. Extremist leftist groups will also be there. The police will probably try to stop demonstrators before they get close to the square. They have been preparing their defenses for the last few days and called in reinforcements and additional riot control vehicles.

Whether or not the protests escalate into something more sustained depends a lot on what happens tomorrow. The Turkish police are likely to be brutal. There will definitely be injuries. It is also possible there will be deaths. Whether these trigger mass protests – like Gezi – will depend on factors such as who gets injured/killed, how brutal the police violence is etc. It may be that the police will succeed in containing the protestors in relatively narrow streets some distance from the square, in which case the clashes will also be relatively minor. But there is lot of concern about what may happen tomorrow.

Even if nothing much happens tomorrow, the anger and desperation that erupted in the Gezi protests hasn’t gone away. There is so much tension in society that it is sometimes palpable on the streets, particularly here in Istanbul. Erdoğan has been focusing on the breadth of the opposition to him but the biggest threat comes from the depth of the hatred with which he is regarded. Tensions are going to continue to boil over, die down and then boil over again as long as Erdoğan remains in power.

Indeed, at stake for Turkey is not just how long Erdoğan remains in power, but in what capacity and with what effect. Even as speculation grows about whether he will run for president in the August elections, Erdoğan has continued to attempt and accumulate ever-greater power for the premiership. Since his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the March 30 local elections, Erdoğan has refused to allow access to YouTube, openly challenged the authority of the Constitutional Court, passed a law greatly enhancing the powers and immunity of the National and Intelligence Organization, lashed out at the independent Central Bank for not bowing to his will, and now blocked Turks’ freedom of assembly. Tomorrow, Labor Day, could demonstrate just how far he is willing to go to enforce his will and how deep and fervent opposition to him runs.

Blaise Misztal is the acting director of the Foreign Policy Project at BPC and Gareth Jenkins is a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Silk Road Studies Program and a consultant to BPC.

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