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Baris Karaagac: Demands for worker’s rights, secularism and more democracy fueling protest movement across Turkey

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

In Turkey, Deputy Prime Minister Arinç has apologized for the police reaction to protesters. The protests continue in more than 60 cities across Turkey. And more than 240,000 trade unionists have joined the protest.

Now joining us from Toronto, where he’s following these events very closely, is Baris Karaagac. He’s a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He’s of Turkish descent. He’s also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crisis and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism, which will come out this summer.

Thanks for joining us, Baris.

So what significance does this apology have? The deputy prime minister talks about–suggests that the police have gone too far.

BARIS KARAAGAC, LECTURER, INTERNAT’L DEVELOPMENT STUDIES, TRENT UNIV.: I think it’s quite significant, because what we’ve seen in the last couple of days is a very widespread politicization of Turkish society, at least that segment of Turkish society that does not support the AKP. But when you look at–it doesn’t mean that among the demonstrators there are former AKP supporters. But–.

JAY: Hang on just one sec. AKP is the ruling party, right?

KARAAGAC: Yeah, the AKP is the ruling party. Right. The AKP has been in power for a decade now.

Demonstrations started a few days ago when a very small number of environmentalists resisted the tearing down of a few trees in a park in central Istanbul. But then the police reaction to that was completely brutal. And this drew thousands of people within a few hours to the park in order to resist the police and save those trees. But then the continuing police brutality drew so much reaction from different segments of Turkish society that it turned into an almost uprising, a popular uprising against the AKP government and the regime it has established in the last ten years. So after what we’ve witnessed–and during this process, a few people lost their lives, and many people were injured, and there were so many–hundreds of clashes between the police and demonstrators from different, various segments of Turkish society, from various walks of life today. And deputy prime minister apologized, and he admitted that the police reaction to the demonstrators were too much, excessive.

JAY: Now, on Monday, something like 240,000 workers, members of a confederation of unions–I think there are six unions in the confederation–they joined in the protest. How important was that, and how much did that have to do with the apology?

KARAAGAC: Well, it is quite significant, because if a part of this reaction is the perceived threats to Turkish secularism or a reaction, a response to the aggressive foreign policy that has been implemented by the AKP government in the last couple of years, particularly with regard to Syria, an important part of it is the general assault on labor that has been going on in the last decade. So in this period, we’ve seen increasing commercialization and neoliberalization in Turkish society.

For example, one example is subcontracting. In 2002, the number of subcontractors, workers, was less than 400,000. In 2012 this has reached more than 1.6 million people. And in Turkey, in a country where there are about 25 million workers, only 11.5 million of them have Social Security, and only less than 14 percent of these workers who have Social Security are unionized. So the AKP government has done nothing about the general well-being of workers in Turkey.

JAY: Now, when you say subcontractors, you mean employers finding ways around unionization.

KARAAGAC: Workers working for subcontractors. Let me put it this way. So these are very insecure jobs with no benefits, etc., etc. So the number of workers who have left any security, any form of security has increasingly decreased under the AKP government.

JAY: Now, my understanding is there’s new labor laws that were coming soon, and that was part of what instigated the workers joining in on this. What are those labor laws?

KARAAGAC: This confederation, the confederation of public employees unions, KESK, decided to go on a two-day strike, beginning on June 4. It was initially organized for June 5, but in order to contribute to what the demonstrators have been trying to achieve, as well as draw attention to what the AKP government is planning to do, especially within the context of public employees law, they decided to take this step.

So what the AKP’s trying to do right now is it’s trying to change the public employees law number 657. So this new law, this new bill, will get rid of the merit principle, and a new position of government public employees will be created, which means that it will be much easier for the government, the AKP government, to employ its own people within the state.

Another important change is the performance assessment. So performance assessments will be used to determine what kind of benefits the employees will get, as well as whether or not the employee will be promoted.

And this confederation, confederation of public unions employees, has also argued that this new bill will also open the way for many politically motivated exiles for public employees.

As regards the condition of labor in Turkey under the AKP rule, I would also like to point out that Turkey right now is the leading country when it comes to workplace accidents, and it’s among the top countries in the world. During the AKP rule, more than 10,000 workers lost their lives, which means every year about 1,000 workers, or four workers per day, lost their [inaud.]

JAY: Right. But the issue of the workers joining the protest, they had their own grievances, they were planning an action, but this clearly was a solidarity with the people protesting across the country about lack of democracy and such. Is that right?

KARAAGAC: Absolutely. And I think in this case they are showing more. They are rather showing their solidarity with those demonstrators than trying to emphasize their own demands, while of course these demands are an important part of this action.

JAY: Right. Now, when the deputy prime minister, Arinç, apologized, he said something interesting. I’ll read the quote. This is coming from AP. He’s quoted as saying, “I would like to express this in all sincerity: everyone’s lifestyle is important to us and we are sensitive to them.” So how much is this all about secularism versus a more conservative Islam? This government, Turkish government, which for people that don’t know–I think most people do–Turkey is a member of NATO, is considered a sort of moderate capitalist model of political economy and politics. It’s more or less within the American sphere of influence. They have their differences with Israel sometime, but they mostly cooperate with Israel. But it’s supposed to respect secularism, and these protests, this outburst, clearly it’s not just about a park. So what was building up here? What is this pent-up anger?

KARAAGAC: It is absolutely not about the park. It was just a trigger. And secularism is a very important part of it, but actually it’s beyond and it’s larger than secularism. It is about preserving different lifestyles in that society. And when we look at especially the recent period of the AKP rule, we can see that this government and its regime have been trying to impose a particular form of social discipline. It can be in schools, it can be in public places. It’s [incompr.] everywhere. And people are right now resisting this imposition of a form of social discipline.

JAY: What are examples, examples of what you’re talking about?

KARAAGAC: For example the recent attempt to restrict even further the consumption of alcohol. Now, when you go to the Taksim area now, which is a cultural center, but it’s also an entertainment center–and the AKP government in recent years has significantly restricted the consumption of alcohol in that area. This might seem quite insignificant to many people, but when we think of it within a wider picture in which the AKP has tried to intervene in the lives of all Turkish citizens, everyone living in Turkey, these have piled up, these are accumulated. And what we’ve seen in the last few days is an outburst. It’s a reaction of all that resentment and dissent. For example, the [incompr.] he starts talking about families who are newlywed people in Turkey [incompr.] children because the country needs them. And, you know, the general conservatism that has been so widespread after the, you know, AKP coming to power a decade ago. And Turkey, you know, the majority in Turkey are Muslims, but at the same time, Turkey’s a very diverse, a very heterogeneous society along ethnic, denominational, and political alliance. So the AKP government, when we look at particularly the last days of their rule, does not seem to have respect of this diversity sufficiently.

JAY: And I’m told that the protesters are saying Turkey is one of if not the leading nation for jailing journalists. What is the level of political repression, repression of criticism and dissent?

KARAAGAC: Particularly in the context of the Kurdish issue we’ve seen significant repression. And in Turkey more than 70 journalists are in jail. But half of them are of Kurdish backgrounds. And all these allegations are related to the Kurdish issue and so-called terror. But this has changed a little bit with the Kurds and the AKP reaching kind of a deal a couple of months ago with the Kurdish guerrillas withdrawing from Turkish territory, and in return Turkish government most likely has made some promises.

JAY: When we listen to some of the protesters speak, they describe the Turkish situation almost as if they’re living in a police state. Is that what the atmosphere is like?

KARAAGAC: I think it would be an exaggeration to call it a police state. But during the demonstrations, the brutality of the police might get that impression. But it has definitely been a very, very repressive regime. And I should also underline that the repression, the political repression was not confined, restricted to the Kurdish issue only.

JAY: So to what extent are the protesters, you know, kind of a marginal, small force in society? To what extent does the government still maintain popular support? And, you know, is there any kind of sense of polling otherwise? I mean, what do most people think of these protests?

KARAAGAC: Well, the AKP Party got 50 percent of the popular vote in the last elections. That’s a fact. But there’s another 50 percent that did not vote for the AKP. And although there might be some marginal forces, movements among the demonstrators, it’s been a popular response to the increasingly authoritarian nature of the AKP government.

JAY: Okay. Good. Thanks very much for joining us, Baris.

KARAAGAC: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.