May 1 debate deepens as gov’t bans Taksim rally

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Turkey’s political scene is again being riveted by a debate over May Day, with the government vowing to block ceremonies in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, even as the opposition has reiterated its intention on marching on the public space.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday he would not allow May Day gatherings in Taksim Square, the scene of protests that have dogged the government for months. A similar decision in May last year to ban the use of the square – a traditional and symbolic rallying point for unions – led to violence as police attacked protesters in a prequel to the wave of nationwide anti-government demonstrations in June.

“Those who insist on celebrating it here [in Taksim Square] are just saying: ‘I am ready for clashes,’” Erdoğan defiantly said at a meeting of his party’s parliamentary group meeting.

“Give up on your hopes of Taksim. Do not engage in a fight with the state. Do not disturb the peace of our people. Our people do not want to see streets where stones and Molotov cocktails prevail,” he said. “We will not tolerate this. You are not above the law.”

Erdoğan has instead suggested the rally area in Yenikapı, which was recently constructed by filling in the sea, and offered free transport on May 1. However, leftist unions have already vowed to ignore the ban.

“Yenikapı and Maltepe are designated places to hold demonstrations and the trade unions should now learn the culture of democratic demonstration,” said Erdoğan, adding that public transportation would be free on May Day if trade unions accept the proposal.

The opposition Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş said they would not give up their demand to gather in Taksim. 

Demirtaş called on the prime minister to give up his insistence on blocking Taksim to May Day gatherings, adding that the BDP would be there on that day.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader also called on the government to allow people to gather for May Day wherever they demand in order to prevent any clashes on that day.

“There was been no fight on May 1, 2010, [when Taksim was open to unions]. The prime minister himself stated [on May 2, 2010] that ‘May 1, 2010, is a concrete example that Turkey has changed.’ But [three years later], Taksim was banned. If you use pressure [on people by bans] then the fight occurs. We call on [the government] to allow people to gather anywhere they demand,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in his group meeting.

Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik said he could meet with the union members over the location of May Day but also signaled that Taksim would be blocked for the rally.

“It is difficult to understand the union’s insistence on Taksim. They can commemorate the workers who lost their lives in Taksim with the participation of a limited number of union members. But if they attempt to gather there, then the scenes will not contribute to Turkey,” said Çelik yesterday upon a question.

Suspected fascist elements within the state killed at least 34 people in Taksim Square on May Day in 1977. Since then, the square has acquired paramount importance for the Turkish left.

On April 21, police attacked members of the May 1 Committee – made up of unions and civil society groups – with tear gas to prevent them from issuing a statement about May Day demonstrations in Taksim.

Eight people died when a relatively small environmentalist movement to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park – adjacent to Taksim Square – evolved into a nationwide wave of protests against Erdoğan.

Fresh protests have erupted over a graft scandal implicating key Erdoğan allies and controversial measures taken by the prime minister including an Internet crackdown that saw Twitter blocked for nearly two weeks.  Despite the protests and the corruption scandal, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came out unscathed from the March 30 local elections.

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