For the first time in more than 30 years Istanbul’s main Taksim Square is open to the public for May Day.
I’ve just been down there, and my as-yet-largely-notional readers may be interested to learn that so far things seem peaceful and festive.
In recent years Istanbul May Days have been marked by teargas, water cannons, and accusations of police heavy-handedness, and this year’s opening of Taksim has largely been perceived as a way to forestall violence, and for the government to damp down simmering labour disputes and score brownie points ahead of a general election in 2011- or earlier.
This piece from the Journal of Turkish Weekly does a decent job of laying out the context.
It’s clear that no one’s taking any chances: 22,000 police are on duty, helicopters are buzzing overhead, gas masks are de rigueur for members of the press, and pebbles from around the Monument of the Republic have been replaced with grass to deprive demonstrators of ammunition.
While the media has been abuzz with talk of constitutional change, today is a reminder that most Turks may have their eyes on something more essential: jobs.
It’s no coincidence that Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday announced a drop in unemployment, but there still seems to be a feeling among workers that Turkey’s much touted economic strength through the global recession somehow hasn’t filtered down.
Most contentious has been a bitter labour dispute in which hundreds of workers have been left jobless by the privatization of the state tobacco company TEKEL.
Travel agent Yunal Sengun was present as a teenager at the last sanctioned May Day in Taksim, and was one of those who fled in panic as the shots rang out.
He believes unemployment and a lack of democratic representation are driving tens of thousands to Taksim.
“The main factor of this is that we have an unemployment figure of 30 per cent and the workers from textile and tobacco industries have been laid off.
“They’re well organized and have public support.”
Turkey’s unemployment rate is 14.5 per cent, but Mr Sengun’s assertion reflects a widespread distrust of official figures.
Cynical about the government’s motives in reopening Taksim, he nonetheless believes it’s important that people can again mark May Day freely here.
“I come from working people and I believe in independence and in Ataturk’s identity of independence.”
I’ll post again later – teargas allowing…