Questionable Leadership: The Case of Occupy Gezi

Last week, I wrote a post arguing that the Occupy Gezi movement was leaderless and lacked focus. On June 2nd, it seemed unclear whether the protestors in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara wanted a change in Turkey’s leadership, greater respect for human rights, more trees in urban spaces, less religion in those same spaces, more democracy, or less government. There seemed to be no one political agenda and no one in particular to advance it even if one existed. That said, imagine my shock today when I read that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to meet with the leaders of the protest movement on Wednesday.

Maybe I was wrong about how well or poorly organized the movement is. Having just completed the third year of my PhD, I’ve come to accept that being proven wrong is part of every working day for me (and sometimes weekends too): constructive criticism in the ivory tower is rather, um, blunt and not all that constructive outside of helping you build character. Furthermore, it is hard for me to keep my finger on the pulse of Istanbul when I’m sitting at a desk in Ottawa.

I don’t think I am wrong, however. Let me explain why.

I don’t think I was wrong in stating that the Occupy movement is leaderless and somewhat aimless since the self-proclaimed leaders – those that will most likely be meeting with Erdogan on Wednesday – either do not legitimately represent the movement or they do not represent a majority of the voices in the crowd and, therefore, should not be considered its leaders. According to Sebnem Arsu, reporting from Istanbul for the New York Times, the Wednesday meeting will include a spokesperson for Taksim Solidarity, and representatives from Greenpeace and from the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. The latter two groups are international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and therefore their ability to represent Turkish protestors is questionable. The former is a domestic social movement which lends the group a degree of legitimacy but their narrow and ever shifting demands calls into question how well they represent the protestors they speak for.

The academic literature is replete with accounts of how INGOs – particularly, human rights, humanitarian, development, and environmental INGOs – do a poor job of representing those who would be the recipients of their help. Almost all INGOs face a dilemma: they must satisfy the demands of their donors (the organizations and individuals that fund their operation) and the demands of their recipients (the population that they aim to help). Unfortunately, the demands of donors and recipients rarely match up. And, perhaps even more unfortunate, research repeatedly finds that INGOs will prioritize the demands of the donor over the demands of the recipients. That said, it is fair to question whether the representatives from Greenpeace and from the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly will faithfully represent the demands of the Gezi protestors when speaking with Erdogan. While I don’t believe that the representatives will act in bad faith – in a totally self-serving fashion – neither do I believe that they will present the demands of the Turkish protestors in a way that is totally divorced from their larger institutional needs.

In contrast, I believe Taksim Solidarity can more legitimately claim to lead the protestors since the group is local and represents local demands. In other words, they are more likely than the INGOs to represent the people and sentiments at the heart of the protests. However, while Taksim Solidarity is in a better position to legitimately claim leadership of the movement, its agenda does not seem to accurately reflect the demands of the protestors nor has it represented its own demands in a clear and consistent fashion.

Despite being in a better position to represent the demands of the Occupiers, Taksim Solidarity has chosen a limited agenda (relative to what the masses have been demanding). Absent from their demands, articulated in press releases, is any reference to high-level government reform: there is no request to unseat Erdogan or his party, the AKP; no demands concerning the place of Islam in the public sphere; nor is there a demand for Turkey to improve its respect for human rights beyond the removal of impediments to the freedoms of expression and assembly. These demands that have been left off of the agenda have been identified by reliable news sources repeatedly over the past week as a strong driving factor behind the protests.

Furthermore, in the five different press releases by Taksim Solidarity I have come across – one on May 29th, one on June 5th, one on June 8th, and reference to one on June 10th – the demands have been inconsistent across documents. Most notably, the press release on June 10th, according to Hurriyet’s English website, reports that Taksim Solidarity, “…has softened some of its demands on the government, dropping its request that the governor and interior minister be dismissed but refusing to budge on protecting the park.” Changing demands from one press release to the next suggest that these demands are less than firm. In other words, Taksim Solidarity is presenting a rather weak platform that is sending unclear signals to the government.

In sum, the “leaders” that Erdogan is preparing to meet with either cannot claim to legitimately represent the demands of the protestors (the INGOs) or they have chosen not to represent all the demands of the protestors and present a weak and shifting platform. The leadership that these groups can provide, therefore, is questionable.

That said, my opinions regarding the leadership of the movement are based on some (excellent but) early reporting on the issue. There is the possibility that more legitimate and stronger “leaders” will emerge over the next couple of days. Hopefully, they will be granted a seat at Erdogan’s table too. Until then, I stand by my original assessment: the Occupy Gezi movement is leaderless and lacks focus.

Stephanie Soiffer is a PhD Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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