ISTANBUL — Anti-government protesters have turned to local parks to continue their struggle. On a nightly basis, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people attend so-called "park forums" to discuss politics and the country's future.
Every night in public parks across Istanbul, hundreds and even thousands of anti-government protesters gather for what are called “park forums.” The forums were set up after security forces drove protestors out of Istanbul’s Gezi Park last month. It was the government’s plans to redevelop the park that sparked weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
Zeynep, who only wanted to give her first name for fear of prosecution, is an organizer of the forums. She said that, along with discussing the latest action against the government, the forums are also about building democracy and tolerance.
"In every park there are forums and talks and speeches, there are many many democratic issues they are trying to address," she said. "These are the very beginning of democracy; in ancient Greece people used to come into the forums or places like this to discuss their issues and find a common solution. In these parks, you can have Turks and Kurds, and fundamentalists, or pro-Kemalists are only discussing, not fighting, this is very important," said Zeynep.
The main speaker at tonight’s forum discussed animal rights. Other issues debated included abortion rights and the role of religion in society. People from all walks of life attend, including women wearing religious headscarves; the vast majority of participants are young. One of those in attendance said he saw the forums as ending one of the last remaining legacies of military rule.
Some of those attending park forums have been attacked by unidentified groups of men wielding sticks and knives, and the state appointed city governor has condemned the forums as subversive. But, for now, the police have not intervened, although those attending the forums claim undercover police frequently monitor the meetings.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University believes the forums signal that an important change is occurring in Turkey.
"It’s a different, a new type [of] political action, that exists everywhere in the developed countries. It’s a participatory democracy, something that Turkey is discovering - very quickly, by the way. People speaking [...] their minds, getting organized, and challenging these unilateral decisions by the authorities will be a permanent feature in the months and years to come," he said.
The forums are already looking beyond the anti-government protests, to the local and presidential elections set for next year, according to forum organizer Zeynep.
"From these parks, people are being given some tasks: observing in the elections points (polling stations), making sure that this government is not doing anymore tricks. We are getting more and more organized," said Zeynep. "Actually, our idea is not is do a revolution; the idea is to [participate in] the election and make sure this government is not elected again."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already started campaigning, organizing political rallies and meetings across the country. Observers claim those gatherings are likely only to strengthen the resolve of the protesters, which means that Istanbul’s parks and many others across the country are likely to remain centers for politics and political dissent.