Riot police use tear gas to disperse the crowd during an anti-government protest in Istanbul, Turkey.

2013 Reuters

In Istanbul’s Taksim Square

Spend a night in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and it becomes very clear why protesters are there. They feel that the government ignores them, overlooks them and excludes them. They say their voices are not heard, and that the government serves its own constituency, telling everyone else how to live and what not to say.

The protests that have rocked Turkey in recent days started with a sit-in at Taksim Gezi Park to challenge government plans to build a shopping mall in one of Istanbul’s few green spaces. But they have grown into much wider discontent and have become demonstrations against the ruling Justice and Development Party.

On June 2 the interior minister reported that there had been 235 protests in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. Hundreds have been wounded or treated for exposure to tear gas, and on June 3, 23-year-old Abdullah Comert died of head injuries during a protest in the city of Antakya.

What will stay with me is the atmosphere among the many thousands filling the square and park on a Monday night, one week after the sit-in by the first campaigners began. The spirit of solidarity and carnival was thrilling.

From streets nearby came the fog of teargas that the police are still using in generous quantities. It has becomede rigueurfor thousands of demonstrators to walk nonchalantly around in medical-type masks as if about to step into an operating theatre, carrying in hand a bottle containing a mixture of water and anti-acid drugs or even milk, applied to the face to neutralize the symptoms of the gas. Some of the most original graffiti – and there is much of it – plays with the teargas theme: “Wipe away your tears: things will never be the same again!”

High barricades have been put up to prevent vehicles from entering the square, and a few police cars rolled over with their windows smashed stand as monuments to protest.

The protesters clearly encompass a much wider spectrum of the society than those campaigning against a construction project billed as urban regeneration and strongly associated with its main architect, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Most seem to be drawn from the Turkish secular-leaning middle classes, students or people in their 20s and 30s. For the most part, these are not people who have spent much time at protests.

There are also some radical leftist protesters and radical nationalist and secularist-Kemalist groups, who invoke the legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The large number of Turkish flags on show during the day seemed to be less in evidence at night. From time to time there has been a smaller group of Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (DTP) supporters, hoping the protests won’t derail the peace process. And there are people calling themselves “Anticapitalist Muslims” and “Radical Muslims,” and strong participation from activists in the gay rights movement.

In short, it is hardly a uniform group, but they are united in political opposition to the government.

“We are fed up with the way we are treated by Tayyip [the prime minister] and the police”, one newly arrived high school kid said, summing up the mood.

Violent and repeated police attacks on the peaceful protesters in the park that began at five in the morning on May 30 undoubtedly provided the visual trigger for pent-up anger against the authorities. The government does not like public displays of protest. It has for years used heavy-handed tactics to delegitimize demonstrations by those it perceives as opponents, mostly Kurds and leftists, trade unionists and students.

Few police have been held to account for their brutality during these bouts of repression, and police violence encourages a minority of demonstrators to fight back and resort to violence themselves. In March 2006, the police killed ten people in three days of protests that rocked the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

The European Court of Human Rights has weighed in against these tactics repeatedly over the years, most recently in December 2012. It ruled that Turkey had violated the right to assembly in a crushing verdict on policing in Istanbul on May 1, 2008 (DISK and KESK v. Turkey). Unfortunately, Turkey has not changed its tactics in response to these rulings. Add to this picture a pattern of prosecutions of critical speech and writings in violation of repeated judgments of the European Court.

It has been highly regrettable that the prime minister has fuelled the perception that the government is not interested in reaching out to all of Turkey, apparently turning a deaf ear to the protesters. He has said that the Taksim construction project will go ahead, that demonstrators are “hooligans,” that democracy is secured by the vote at the ballot box, and that you get your chance every few years. The prime minister has even referred obliquely to local and foreign provocateurs being behind the protests and called social media a “curse”. The mainstream liberal daily newspaperRadikalreported on June 6 that police had detained several people on suspicion of “inciting criminal activities” with their tweets.

The deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç and President Abdullah Gül have taken a more conciliatory line. Prime Minster Erdoğan returns from his north Africa visit on Thursday night. Will he too change his tone? The government response to the protest in the days ahead will be a key test of whether the ruling party can contribute to making Turkey a democratic and rights-respecting country. And it will test the government’s ability to dispense with the top-down authoritarian political tradition its political class inherited.

Taksim is not Tahrir, but transition to democracy in Turkey has to mean more than a vote in an election.