Unions, civil society should forget about Taksim, PM Erdogan insists

Workers’ unions and professional chambers that are insistent on holding rallies for May 1, celebrated in Turkey as Labor and Solidarity Day, in Taksim Square should forget about it, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

Speaking at his party’s parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, Erdogan said it was his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that originally recognized Labor Day. “Was it the left? Was it the Republican People’s Party [CHP]? Was it the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP]? We made ‘May Day’ an official holiday,” he said.

He reiterated his government’s earlier position that unions would be able to hold rallies in Istanbul’s Yenikapi Square, or Maltepe Square if space was an issue. “We have always been on the side of the workers. I celebrate the day of labor and solidarity, but we cannot accept shops being damaged,” he said, adding that Yenikapi has been specially prepared for rallies and that if it is too small, Maltepe Square, which is bigger, can be used. He also said the government would allow a rally in Kadikoy for the last time this year. “There will be no more rallies in Kadikoy, either, [after May 1],” he said.

Civil society organizations and workers’ unions have announced that they will be in Taksim Square in defiance of the ban. The square has historical and symbolic significance as a May Day venue. On May 1, 1977, also known as Bloody May Day, 37 people were killed when unknown assailants opened fire on the crowd. Since then, May Day in Turkey has been a source of tension, and the square was officially declared off limits to May Day demonstrators. In 2009, however, the government decided to make May Day an official holiday and re-opened Taksim Square up for celebrations beginning in 2010. But last year the government announced that it would not allow celebrations in Taksim Square due to construction going on there at the time.

Erdogan said if the unions insist, that would mean they want to clash with the police. “Everybody should act within the boundaries of the law. You are not the law,” he said, referring to the unions.

He said there was no way the government could see any well-meaning intentions in the unions’ insistence on rallying in Taksim Square. He criticized union leaders calling Taksim a “sacred place.” “What kind of sacredness are you referring to? You can lay a wreath in front of the monument if you are going to visit it. We built a metro for you; you can reach Yenikapi. We will also make public transportation free. What more can we do? The nation is sick of spoiled [protesters] on the street.”

He said the Gezi events of last year as well as the arrests of several businessmen close to the government and the sons of four ministers in a raid on Dec. 17 had been plotted to undermine his government. “We continued to grow in spite of all these smear campaigns and conspiracies from the inside and the outside. They tried to scare [our] international investors. Our income from tourism rose to $35 billion. The world sees our country as an important place and comes here [because of that]. Global investments are still ongoing.”

He said protesters disturbed the peace and break windows. “The nation gave their response to them on March 30,” he said, referring to his party’s success in the recent municipal elections. “Some labor unions in this country should learn about the democratic right to protest.”

Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas, in his party’s parliamentary group meeting, said the BDP will be at Taksim Square with the unions. “The prime minister should not insist on Taksim. We will be together with the workers in Taksim on May 1.”

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu also spoke at his party’s parliamentary group meeting. “The ban was introduced [to protect] against potential incidents. There will be no incidents. What is more natural than people acknowledging their own history? Let people celebrate wherever they want.” The CHP also announced that it would be in Taksim on May 1.

Head of the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK) Lami Ozgen was quoted by BBC Turkce as saying, “Taksim is an important and meaningful space for the Turkish working class and the oppressed.” In response to Erdogan’s call to celebrate in Yenikapi, a rally venue that was created via land reclamation, Ozgen said: “Please don’t let anybody order us around. The government wants to legitimize the environmental massacre at Yenikapi by forcing the masses to go there.”

Recalling the 1977 Taksim massacre, Ozgen said: “There was a massacre. The place to express solidarity and support regarding that massacre is the place where it occurred.”

Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu also made a statement on Tuesday, saying he hoped there wouldn’t be any “unpleasant incidents” on May Day.

“We let every labor organization know that they are free to use Yenikapi Square for Labor Day, and we are ready to support them logistically,” the governor said.