Celebrating May Day in a State of Emergency

George Winter
Zeynep Serinkaya

The embattled Turkish left is trying to make the best of a dire situation.

The Union of Construction Workers protesting the working conditions under the rapid urban transformation by banging their helmets on the ground. George Winter

This year’s May Day in Istanbul presented a defiant and active picture of the Turkish left. Opposition parties, communist initiatives, feminist collectives, civil-society organizations, ethnic minority groups, and trade unions were all present at the government-sanctioned protest space in the district of Maltepe where the events were held. Despite Turkey being in the second year of a state of emergency, and facing snap parliamentary and presidential elections called for June, the celebrations were filled with hope.

A line of police to search people on entrance to the Maltepe Miting Alanı.
George Winter

Since the early days of the Turkish Republic, the “worker’s holiday” (İşçi Bayramı) has been a major event for left-leaning political movements; since 2009 it has been celebrated throughout Turkey as a national holiday. Taksim Square, where celebrations were held for many years, holds symbolic significance for May Day. It was also the site of a mass shooting on May 1, 1977 by assumed right-wing extremists, an event that has become part of Turkey’s collective memory of traumas. A somber one-minute silence was held in the Maltepe Miting Alanı , the government-sanctioned protest space, for those killed.

This year, the May Day celebration was more than a political protest; loud speakers played Turkish socialist anthems and protest songs, families picnicked, flew kites, and applauded passing union delegates. Crowds cheered when it was announced that this was the largest May Day celebration in a decade. Sendika62.org, a trade-union news platform, reported that over 100,000 people attended the demonstration. Despite being an approved demonstration, attendees had to undergo three different security searches to gain access to the demonstration area.

People take selfies in front of a Çarşı banner. Çarşı is a left-wing fan club for the beşiktaş soccer club.
George Winter

Most of the messages on banners and in songs were about worker exploitation, but also worker unity and hope for the future. One white-collar union (the Plaza Action Platform), had a sign reading “Life is short, the weekend is shorter.” Nearby, a group chanted “There’s no salvation on your own, it’s either all of us or none of us.”

The atmosphere was one of resistance and defiance. A teacher in his mid-twenties remarked: “May 1 is ever more important under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule in Turkey because it brings different parts of the opposition together and it carries the potential to develop their means of opposition. It’s a space for sharing their experiences and for seeing their solidarity. This is very important.”

A LGBTQ flag flies over the May Day celebrations.
George Winter

Similar messages abounded. A sixty-five-year-old woman from Bostancı explained, “I have arthritis but I’m here, I’m resisting. I thought I should come here and join in. I have meniscus in my knees but I came and I won’t die yet.”

This year, as usual, there was a ban on marching to Taksim Square and all roads and forms of transport to Taksim were closed. More than 26,000 police were on duty around the city and 84 people were detained throughout the day. Despite the heavy-handed security measures, several unions tried to march to Taksim anyway. A group including the Birleşik Metal-İş (United Metal Workers) and Nakliyat-İş (a transport workers’ union) was permitted to lay a wreath of flowers at the republican statue in Taksim Square, but protests were not allowed. Other groups attempted to march to the square but were prevented by police and detained.

Moving May Day celebrations to Maltepe was controversial. Rubble from working-class areas that had been cleared for state-run, gentrifying urban transformation was used to build the space where the worker’s holiday celebrations took place. Rapid gentrification and urban transformation have become important political issues in Turkey, especially in Istanbul. But though expressing dissatisfaction with the location, all the large unions and opposition parties felt the need to be present and organize on May 1.

“Yes, this is the rubble of the urban transformation, they’re sacking the city,” said the parent of a student killed in a 2016 Ankara bomb attack. “But we’ll struggle on even if we are the last people standing.” Asked her reasons for coming to the celebration, a twenty-six-year-old teacher who attended with the Marxist-Leninist Birleşik Haziran Hareketi, (the United June Movement), said, “We discussed the choice of space and we think it’s due to the state of emergency. Our hearts are with Taksim but they did not insist on Taksim this year due to the state of emergency. They round up everyone if they march anywhere else so I guess this is why.”

The Turkish Communist Party holding pictures of Turkish communist figures.
George Winter

Following a failed military coup, Turkey has been under a state of emergency since July 2016, leading to limitations or suspensions of freedom of speech and assembly that have been condemned by human-rights advocates. Under the state of emergency, security forces and the government have been granted far-reaching powers and workers’ strikes have been outlawed by presidential decree. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has twice referred to this as being good for business. The Turkish Industry and Business Association, TÜSİAD, agrees: while they call for the end of the state of emergency, they say they approve of the suspension of the right to strike.

Using the powers afforded them by the state of emergency, authorities have prevented attempted strikes over wage disputes in Kocaeli, Gebze, and Bursa. On the other hand, when Turkish, Syrian, and Kurdish shoe makers in the southern city of Adana collectively went on strike demanding equal pay for equal work in the fall of 2016, the strike quickly spread nationwide and succeeded in achieving a 21 percent wage increase for many workers. Even with obstacles to workers’ rights, there are still possibilities for collective action.

Nevertheless, despite intense left-wing opposition to the AKP government, infighting among opposition parties has resulted in an absence of any clear political alternative. For example, in 2016 the largest opposition party, the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), worked with the AKP government to remove the parliamentary immunity of many MPs from the pro-minority and pro-Kurdish rights Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). As a result, many were arrested and Selahattin Demirtaş, a previous co-leader of HDP, will run for president from behind bars. In light of this, it seems unlikely that these two opposition parties would be able to work together in a sustainable coalition.

Emek Party or Labour Party flags at the May Day celebrations.
George Winter

But people remain hopeful. A sixty-two-year-old member of Eğitim Sendikaları (the Education and Science Workers Union), explained, “The opposition alliance must include HDP and build a united front. AKP is trying to at least secure its place in the parliament with the early elections, but it won’t last long. I’m sixty-two years old and I have been in this struggle for years. I always have hope, nothing will happen without hope.”

Opposition parties cried foul last month after the ruling AKP–MHP coalition passed a law altering how elections are carried out. Under the new rules, it will be possible to move the ballot boxes and count votes elsewhere due to “security concerns” — a provision HDP strongly disagreed with, saying it will allow the government to move ballot boxes from areas where HDP has support. Police and security forces are also now allowed to be present inside the ballot stations, which the CHP argues would make the voting process less transparent. CHP has challenged the law before the Constitutional Court, but with so little time before elections next month, it is doubtful whether the court will make a decision in time.

In reaction to the new laws, one CHP member of parliament even considered boycotting the elections. Asked about the upcoming vote, the twenty-six-year-old teacher at the May Day celebration said: “I actually think there should have been a boycott but it is meaningless given these circumstances. So we can’t support a boycott but I don’t know what can we do. We were all voting observers in the last election, so we will go again to protect the ballots. But if you ask me if I’m hopeful, we’re playing a game we already know, so I can’t look at it with rose-tinted glasses anymore. But we can try and secure the ballot boxes.”

Beyond the election, rising inflation under the state of emergency has stoked dissatisfaction. A twenty-one-year-old store clerk at the Maltepe celebration holding an HDP flag, said, “Bread used to be 10 cents; now it’s 1.50 liras. They keep increasing the prices and then they ask for votes. Do they think people are ignorant?” Last month the value of the Turkish lira fell to its lowest point since the hyperinflation of the 1990s. The combination of inflation and a falling currency has hit purchasing power in Turkey, as prices rise faster than wages.

Commenting on what the future holds for the Turkish left and the opposition, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student said, “I think the election might bring back an agenda for the opposition, of all backgrounds. There is a growing reaction from all political parties, both due to the economy and due to the restriction of liberties. On one hand there is the consolidation of Erdoğan’s power and various groups’ demands against [Erdoğan’s] palace regime. This won’t change with the election; we have to look forward to what we can do after the elections.”

The opposition celebrations were not the only political events on May Day; several pro-government unions held their own celebrations. Although they attracted fewer participants, the rival events underscored the fact that not all worker’s movements are in opposition to the current government. And despite the hopeful May Day mood among the opposition, most polls for the upcoming elections predict a twenty-point AKP lead in both the parliamentary and the first-round presidential elections.

Under these circumstances, a left-wing workers’ movement can’t expect change to come over night, and in the short run the coming election merely promises more of what the country has been experiencing since the failed coup two years ago. But in the words of the twenty-three-year-old graduate student, “One day we will be in Taksim again.”