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The Republic Protests (Turkish: Cumhuriyet Mitingleri) were a series of peaceful mass rallies that took place in Turkey in the spring of 2007. People who support the Kemalist ideology and state secularism participated in the rallies. The initial aim of the protests was to pressure prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to be a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. Later, the aim was changed to pressure Abdullah Gul who was the only presidential candidate, to withdraw his candidacy. The rallies were organized by the Ataturkist Thought Association under the leadership of General Sener Eruygur, who was later prosecuted for having participated in the planning of several abortive coups against the incumbent, conservative Justice and Development Party.
The first rally took place in Ankara on 14 April just two days before the start of the presidential election process. The second one took place in Istanbul on 29 April. The third and fourth rallies took place consecutively in Manisa and Canakkale on 5 May. The fifth rally took place in Izmir on 13 May.
A “second wave” of the Republic Protests, though small in scale, took place on 17 May 2009.
Turkey’s preservation and maintenance of its secular identity has been a profound issue and source of tension long before the demonstrations. In the past, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out in favor of a less repressive secularism and against the active restrictions, instituted by Kemal Ataturk on wearing the Islamic-style head scarves in government offices and schools.
According to the Guardian Unlimited, Erdogan revealed his religious conservative program by initiating a move in 2004 to criminalize adultery, which eventually failed under intense pressure from the secularist forces in the country and the European Union, which Turkey has been trying to join.
General Yasar Buyukan?t, then Chief of the Turkish General Staff, warned against growing Islamic fundamentalism in October 2006. Prime minister Erdogan replied, claiming that there was no such threat. In a press conference two days prior to the demonstration Buyukan?t stated: “We hope that someone is elected president who is loyal to the principles of the republic — not just in words but in essence.” This statement was widely interpreted as a hint from the General urging Erdogan not to run.
The serving president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, aimed a clear swipe at Erdogan the day before the demonstrations by stating that “The threat which Islamic fundamentalism poses to the country is higher than ever.” Although the post is mainly ceremonial, the Turkish president has the power to veto laws that he believes are in violation of the Constitution of Turkey and to veto appointments to the highest positions of the state administration. Sezer, a former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, has done so many times during his years in office. In a recent poll by Hurriyet, a majority of the participants agreed with the president’s assessment of the Islamist threat.
On April 24, Prime Minister Erdogan declared his foreign minister Abdullah Gul as the official candidate of Justice and Development Party for the premiership. Gul’s candidacy was controversial because of his past involvement with two banned Islamic political parties. Republication of Gul’s statement, “We want to change the secular system”, in an interview originally published by the Guardian in 1995, created further tension.
Additional concerns were also present, including the effect of the hijab-style clothing of Gul’s wife on Turkey’s secular image. She had previously filed a case against Turkey for the ban in the public buildings.
On 14 April the first protest took place in Tandogan square in Ankara. The number of people gathering in front of An?tkabir. The first protest was one of the largest that Turkey had seen in years until then. The target of the first protest was the possible presidential candidacy of the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan . The constitution puts the choice of president into the hands of the Turkish Grand National Assembly – in which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has a healthy majority. However, if recently proposed modifications to the constitution are ratified in time, the presidency will result from direct election by the people. After the rally, Erdogan announced that he had decided not to run for president.
The slogan of the protest was Claim Your Republic (Turkish: Cumhuriyetine Sahip C?k). According to the Ministry of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, who administer An?tkabir, 370,000 people visited the monument on that day, but eyewitness accounts from those who participated say that at least twice that amount was not able to enter the crowded grounds (see photo). Police announcements gave conflicting numbers ranging from about 70,000 to 150,000 participants which was criticized among police officials themselves stating “such announcements hurt the credibility of the department.” CNN Turk spoke of more than 650,000 at the meeting.
The demonstrators had different motives, including the suspicion that Erdogan, who is thought to be attached to political Islam, will alter the secular state. Erdogan’s government denies having an Islamic agenda, but according to CNN, some critics argue that the government is inching the country towards increased religious rule. Erdogan has had run-ins with the law in the past: He was tried and convicted for “inciting religious hatred” and had consequently served a four month jail term in 2000 while he was the Mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city. According to the Guardian Unlimited, the pro-Islamic prime minister’s party has been eroding secularists’ longtime grip on power.
The protest was initiated by the “Association of Kemalist Ideology” (Turkish: Ataturkcu Dusunce Dernegi) and supported by around 300 non-governmental organizations in Turkey. First some 60,000 people who travelled from all over Turkey by bus arrived to the protest in the early hours of Saturday, 14 April. People travelled by train and the residents of Ankara joined the protest overfilling Tandogan Square and the nearby streets two hours before the official beginning. Among the protesters were also leaders of the opposition parties, Deniz Baykal (CHP), Zeki Sezer (DSP) and some professors of various universities wearing academic regalia. Protesters, waving the Turkish flag and carrying banners depicting Ataturk, chanted “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” (Turkish: Turkiye laiktir laik kalacak) and “We don’t want an imam as president!” (Turkish: Imam cumhurbaskan? istemiyoruz). The demonstration in downtown Ankara ended at 13:00 local time (10:00 GMT). Afterwards, the crowd marched to the An?tkabir to pay their respect to the founder of the republic.
During the demonstrations, flight above Tandogan Square and An?tkabir was banned. Twelve ambulances and eleven police APCs were kept at standby in the surrounding streets. A contingent of 10,000 police officers watched over the crowd, but the demonstration ended peacefully.
On 16 April in an interview en route to Germany onboard the prime minister’s jet, Erdogan said that the demonstration would not affect his decisions (at the time he had not yet decided whether to run). Bulent Ar?nc, Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, stated that “some people are trying to stop the assembly from electing a civilian, democratic and religious president”. He also said that “not the regime but the power of the backers of the status quo were in danger”. In response to the protests Eyup Fatsa, AK Party group chief representative, stated that “if they [AK Party] decided to hold such a demonstration they could gather ten times as many people” and that the parliament does not decide based on crowd gatherings. A Reuters article that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde stated that if Erdogan became president, Turkey would face its greatest political crisis since the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, noting the intricate connections between the secular elites and the army, and that the Chief of the Turkish Armed Forces had warned people of the danger threatening Turkish secularism. The article also reported that the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), the main opposition party, have declared their intention to leave the parliament and ask the Constitutional Court to cancel Erdogan’s running in the elections.
On 18 April, Arzuhan Dogan Yalc?ndag, the president of the Association of Turkish Businessman and Industrialists (TUSIAD), stated that she felt Erdogan would not stand as a candidate in the presidential election.
On 24 April after these weeks of debate over who would run for the presidency, foreign minister Abdullah Gul was put forward as the only candidate. Jonathan Rugman, a British reporter in Turkey for the Guardian, had published an article on 27 November 1995 following an interview with Abdullah Gul, who was then a member of the Welfare Party and allegedly made remarks such as “the Republican Era is over”. This interview became popular after announcement of Gul’s candidacy. Turkish: Cumhuriyet doneminin sonu gelmistir. Immediately following the announcement, a group of 14 people was arrested for gathering to protest his candidacy in front of the Cankaya Palace (the presidential complex). After the arrest, smaller groups also gathered, chanting “if carrying the Turkish flag is a crime, arrest us too”. Drivers passing by reportedly showed support by waving flags from their cars. A similar protest took place in Kugulu Park. When asked about this at a reception, General Ergin Saygun responded by quoting the 12 April speech of Yasar Buyukan?t. When further inquired what he thought about the new commander-in-chief’s wife having an Islamic headscarf, Saygun replied by saying that the answer to the question was inside that speech.
On 25 April when inquired about his wife’s Islamic headscarf, Gul responded by saying his wife’s decision should be respected and treated as a personal right. The same day there was an assassination attempt on the YOK president Dr. Erdogan Tezic who is known for his secularist remarks. Three rounds were fired by a 30-year-old man identified as Nurullah Ilgun. Ilgun was arrested the same day.
On 27 April, with only 353 parliamentarians present, the AK Party failed to achieve a quorum of 367, and Gul’s candidacy failed at the first round despite a majority of those present voting in favour. Due to the lack of necessary participation, the vote was taken to the constitutional court to be discussed over the weekend. Later the same day the Turkish Armed Forces released a statement warning that they are a party to this debate and the absolute defender of secularism, and that when necessary they would display their attitudes and actions very clearly. This led to an increase in tensions between the AK Party and the Turkish Armed Forces.
On 29 April a second rally was organized to start at 13:00 local time. Hundreds of thousands to more than one million gathered for the second protest at Abide-i Hurriyet (Monument of Liberty) in Caglayan square in Istanbul in support of secularism in Turkey and against the candidacy of Abdullah Gul in the 2007 presidential election. The rally was organised by Cagdas Yasam? Destekleme Dernegi (Association in Support of Contemporary Living), Cumhuriyet Kad?nlar? Dernegi (Association of Republic’s Women), and other women’s NGO’s. At 15:22, mobile phone base stations were overloaded. Mobile phones in and around Caglayan became inoperable. At 15:30, Tuncay Ozkan, then owner of Kanalturk, displayed a video of several statements by the current prime minister Erdogan in the square.
On April 30, the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stated he would address the country amid the crisis over the presidential election that has pitted secularists, including the army, against his Islamist-rooted government. On May 1, in his public address Prime Minister Erdogan called for unity. He said: “Unity, togetherness, solidarity, these are the things we need most. We can overcome many problems so long as we treat each other with love,? he also said: “Turkey is growing and developing very fast … We must protect this atmosphere of stability and tranquility,? On May 2 the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled (9-2) the first round of the presidential elections void due to insufficient participation. Hasim K?l?c and Sacit Adal? were the only two Constitutional court members who voted against this. Former presidential candidate Abdullah Gul stated that an election should be held as soon as possible and the people should elect the president directly. Erdogan announced that there would be an early election on 24 June or 1 July. Erdogan said that the constitutional court decision was a bullet to democracy. Late that night Sabih Kanadoglu, a former justice in Turkish High Court of Appeals, objected the early vote and argued that it was unconstitutional. He also claimed that these attempts to maneuver around the law would lead to further crisis. Kanadoglu was also the person who pointed out the “367 parliamentarian requirement” law. A new controversy arose with the approaching end of term of the current president Sezer on 16 May. Speaker of the Parliament Bulent Ar?nc stated that the current president “would have to unfortunately retire” which would make Ar?nc the proxy president until a president is elected. However lawmakers argue that the current president would continue to serve until a replacement is elected. On May 3, Turkey’s Parliament moved up elections to July 22, 2007, after the Islamic-rooted ruling party and its secular opposition agreed that an early ballot was the only way out of their standoff over political Islam. On May 4, the election calendar for the early election had been put forward. A total of 21 political parties had registered to run for the election.
On May 5 two rallies took place consecutively in Manisa and in Canakkale with tens of thousands of participants reported at each event.
The rally in Manisa started at 10:00 local time in Sultan square. Manisa is the hometown of Bulent Ar?nc member of Justice and Development Party, then speaker of the Turkish parliament.
The rally in Canakkale started at 13:30 with an estimated participation of 25,000 people. A contingent of 400 police officers watched over the crowd.
On 6 May, Gul announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy right after a second vote which also failed because in the parliamentary session AK Party did not achieve to gather at least 367 members. On 7 May an amendment to the Turkish constitution, allowing the president to be elected directly by the people rather than by a parliamentary vote, was passed by 350 votes to 56. Founder of Borusan Holding As?m Kocab?y?k stated that if the AK Party gained 50% popular support in the upcoming general elections the country would be lost. On 8 May a request by the Young Party (Turkish: Genc Parti) to move the date for the early election to an earlier date of 22 June was declined. On 9 May president Sezer implied that he would veto amendments to the Turkish constitution, stating that the amendments had been passed at a very heated time. The European Union raised a similar objection. Foreign (non-Turkish) press also reported the expectation of a presidential veto on the AK Party’s recent amendments to the Turkish constitution. On 10 May further amendments to the Turkish constitution were officially passed by parliament, 376 to 1. According to the amendments, general elections will be carried out every four years rather than five. The president will now serve a maximum of two five-year terms instead of a unique seven-year term. The president will now be elected by the people rather than the parliament. President Sezer has 15 days to review the amendments and decide whether or not to veto and return the amendments to the parliament. On 11 May when asked about the amendments to the Turkish constitution, which now allow the president to be elected directly by the people rather than by a parliamentary vote, Gul announced that his candidacy is ongoing, despite stating on 6 May that he had withdrawn his candidacy. YOK president Dr. Erdogan Tezic, who survived an assassination attempt on 25 April 2007 criticized the AK Party heavily, stating that they do not just seek political power but also increased government power and also are trying to use YOK to this end.
On May 13 a fifth rally took place in Gundogdu square, Izmir. Izmir has historically been leftist in terms of the dominant political tendency. Reportedly over one million – and possibly two million – people gathered in Izmir for the rally to demand their country remain a secular state, stepping up pressure on the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party government before July elections. The municipal harbor officials confirmed that the number of citizens traveling by public ferry to the event site numbered over 350,000.
Leaders of the three leftist parties, namely Deniz Baykal of the Republican People’s Party (Turkish: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP), Zeki Sezer of Democratic Left Party (Turkish: Demokratik Sol Parti – DSP), and Murat Karayalc?n of Social Democratic People’s Party (Turkish: Sosyaldemokrat Halk Partisi – SHP) were also among the demonstrators.
Security for the event was tightened with 5,000 police officers watching over the rally.
Although the organizers had initially intended to terminate the series of rallies with that of Izmir, two further demonstrations were held in the cities of Samsun and Denizli. Thousands gathered to protest in Samsun on 20 May, on a date chosen for its particular significance for coming the day after 19 May, a Turkish national holiday that marks the anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s landing in the same port city in 1919 to launch the Turkish War of Independence. Yet another rally with participation by tens of thousands of demonstrators was held on 26 May in Denizli, a city generally known for being relatively conservative in outward appearance, although it also symbolizes the class of Anatolian Tigers.
In Turkish general election, 2007, AK Party, the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, gained an enormous support which hasn’t been observed for decades. In the elections, AK Party, CHP and MHP had 46.47%, 20.85% and 14.21% of all votes, respectively. The new parliament selected Abdullah Gul as the next president.
A “second wave” of the Republic Protests took place at 12:00 (local time) on 17 May 2009.[5