People have killed their fear of authority - and the protests are growing

What began in an Istanbul park has tapped in to years of grievances.

"Well, we are just filling light bulbs with paint," said my friend, a cafe owner in Cihangir, the Soho of Istanbul. Speaking to me on the phone, she sounded as relaxed as if she was baking an apple pie. "You know," she continued, "the only way to stop a TOMA is to throw paint on its window so that the vehicle loses orientation."

My friend, who was completely uninterested in politics until six days ago, had never been in conflict with the police before. Now, like hundreds of thousands of others in Turkey, she has become a warrior with goggles around her neck, an oxygen mask on her face and an anti-acid solution bottle in her hand. As we have all learned, this the essential kit to fight the effects of tear gas. As for TOMA, that is the vehicle-mounted water cannon. To paralyse it, you either have to put a wet towel in its exhaust pipe or burn something under its engine or you and a dozen others can push it over. This kind of battle-info is circulating all over Turkey at the moment. It is like a civil war between the police and the people. Yet nobody expected this when, six days ago, a group of protesters organised a sit-in at Istanbul's Gezi Park to protect trees that were to be cut down for the government's urban redevelopment project.

Ten years of arrogance

The protests that have now engulfed the country may have begun in Gezi Park in Taksim, the heart of Istanbul. It was never just about trees, but the accumulation of many incidents. With the world's highest number of imprisoned journalists, thousands of political prisoners (trade unionists, politicians, activists, students, lawyers) Turkey has been turned into an open-air prison already. Institutional checks and balances have been removed by the current AKP government's political manoeuvres and their actions go uncontrolled. On top of this growing authoritarianism, the most important reason for people to hit the streets in support of the Gezi resistance was the arrogant tone of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Even on Sunday, when millions of people were joining the demonstrations, he called the protestors "looters". Throughout his tenure, his rhetoric has been no different. He has repeatedly called his political opponents "alchoholics, marginals, sniffers, bandits, infidels". His mocking sarcasm has become his "thing" over time, and even some of his closest colleagues accept that "he no longer listens to anyone".

Then, there is the fear. This kind of thing is hard to report in a prominent newspaper. That is perhaps why the international media have not reported that the fear of government and the Prime Minister has been growing even among non-political people. You can easily hear your grocery shop man saying "I think my phone is tapped". The mainstream media has not covered it, but we have read reports on social media about people being arrested for making jokes about the government. That is perhaps why for the past two days every wall in Taksim Square is full of curses against the Prime Minister. The public is enjoying the death of the "cruel father figure" with the most sexist curses I have ever seen in my life. And I have seen some. But there is a more important component to the protests.

Killing the fear

As a writer and a journalist I followed the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. As I wrote at the time, Arab people killed their fear and I saw how it transformed them from silent crowds to peoples who believe in themselves. This is what has been happening in the last six days in Turkey. Teenage girls standing in front of TOMAs, kids throwing tear gas capsules back to the police, rich lawyers throwing stones at the cops, football fans rescuing rival fans from police, the ultra-nationalists struggling arm in arm with Kurdish activists. . . these were all scenes I witnessed. Those who wanted to kill each other last week became - no exaggeration - comrades on the streets. People not only overcame their fear of authority but they also killed the fear of the "other". One more important point: the generation that has taken to the streets was born after the 1980 military coup that fiercely depoliticised the public. The general who led the 1980 coup once said: "We will create a generation without ideology". So this generation was - until last week.

Dangerous questions

"So this is the media that we've been hearing the news from over the last twenty years?" That was the question asked by one young man on Twitter, as he watched a television journalist keep silent while the Prime Minister branded protesters "a bunch of looters". The young man has been on the streets peacefully protesting for the last six days, so now he has many suspicions about what's been happening in his country all this time. Maybe the Kurdish people are not "terrorists". Perhaps the journalists thrown in prison were not plotting a "coup" against the government. All those jailed trade unionists may not be members of a "terrorist organization" after all. All those university students in prison, were they innocent like he is? Questions multiply.

As I write, Istanbul, Ankara - Turkey's capital - Izmir and Adana are burning. Massive police violence is taking place. And in my middle class Istanbul neighbourhood, like many others, people are banging on their frying pans to protest. People are exchanging information about safe places to take shelter from police, the telephone numbers of doctors and lawyers. In Taksim Square, on the building of Atatürk Cultural Center, some people are hanging a huge banner. There are only two words on it: "Don't surrender!"

Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter @ETemelkuran

An anti-government protester waves Turkey's national flag bearing a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Photograph: Getty Images
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.