Turkish citizens protest government corruption, 1997

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The protest faded in early April, so the end date is non-exact. There was nearly no activity in the month of March.
February 1,
1997
to
April 14,
1997
Location and Goals
Country: 
Turkey
Location City/State/Province: 
Cities and towns in Turkey, especially Istanbul
Goals: 
Removing parliamentary immunity from corrupt politicians, punishing politicians with ties to organized crime, protecting judges overseeing corruption cases.
 

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Turkey has technically been a secular democracy. Despite this, it has experienced numerous coups and the government has at times proven itself to be highly corrupt. The people of Turkey are limited in their ability to protest, however, since police often stop public protests and at times resort to violence in doing so. Despite this limitation on the Turkish people’s ability to speak out against government corruption, in 1997 a large-scale campaign against corruption was able to spread throughout the country and mobilize thousands of Turkish people.

On November 3, 1996, near the town of Susurluk in Western Turkey, a car accident took place that killed three out of the car’s four passengers. Further investigations revealed that the car was carrying illegal weapons in the trunk, and that the passengers were no regular citizens: one of the three dead was discovered to be none other than Abdullah Catli, a fugitive paramilitary nationalist and drug smuggler whose fingerprints had previously been identified during the investigation of the murder of a prominent Kurdish casino owner (although Catli was traveling under another name and carrying eight valid false identification cards as well as two Turkish diplomatic passports signed by the current minister of internal affairs). Also in the car were Catli’s mistress Gonca Us and Huseyin Kocadag, a former high-ranking Istanbul police official and once-director of a government anti-terrorist group. The surviving passenger was a member of parliament who ran a militia group in southeast Turkey.

Evidence from the Susurluk crash linked the Turkish Government to Mr. Catli’s activities and more broadly to the drug and weaponry smuggling industry in general. Turks began to protest, for the first time having been made glaringly aware of their government’s previously covert ties with organized crime.

The day after the crash, students all across the country began to protest. The police met them with large-scale repression. A group of Turkish lawyers formed a new organization in the aftermath of the student protests, with the aim of facilitating public dissent in such a way that the government and police could not suppress it. The group called itself the Citizen Initiative for Constant Light, with the goals of publicizing the ties between power holders and crime lords, removing parliamentary immunity (which, as reinforced by the prime minister, had allowed corrupt members of parliament to escape persecution), publicly trying the leaders of criminal groups in court, and protecting the judges who oversaw corruption cases.

Before beginning the protest, organizers made sure that news of it spread all over the country via fax and telephone. The Citizens’ Initiative for Constant Light reached out to many progressive Turkish groups, beginning with the Istanbul Coordination of Chambers of Professions and eventually including unions, NGOs, chambers of commerce, and many other groups associated with the Republican People’s Party.

On February 1, 1997, the first day of action took place: households all across Turkey turned off their lights at precisely 9:00pm for one minute in order to demand that those responsible for the government’s connection to organized crime be prosecuted. The message of the event was clear and widely advertised: “A minute's darkness for permanent light.” All the group’s mass press releases were signed “Listen to the voice of the silent majority!”

Thanks to the large-scale publicity and clear message, the action continued and grew each night until by February 15 it was estimated that 30 million Turkish households participated in the action across all Turkey. Although the Citizens’ Initiative for Constant Light only publicized that the lights were to be turned off for one minute each night, soon individual households were flipping their lights on and off, making loud noises with pots and pans, and eventually even pouring out into the streets at 9:00pm each night, blocking traffic while cars honked in support.

The large-scale nightly protests lasted throughout February, and are likely to have contributed to the Military’s decision on February 28 to force Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to step down. In early March the organizers called off the protests in anticipation of a report to be released on April 2 by the parliamentary commission investigating the Susurluk scandal, yet the report failed to meet the demands of the protesters, neglecting even to recommend lifting the parliamentary immunity of involved politicians—members of the True Path and Refah parties. This triggered about ten days of renewed protest, but the political upheaval caused by the sudden change of national leadership took center stage and the protests eventually faded completely.

Although the protests dissipated without palpable results, they had a serious impact on how the government and the people of Turkey regarded corruption. The protests forced the government to hold judicial investigations into the Susurluk crash, and although the group did not succeed in achieving all of the Citizens’ Initiative for Constant Light’s stated aims, the large-scale public protests began a national conversation about political corruption and proceeded to bring the issue into the public sphere, where it has remained central for a number of years.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Meyer, James H. (1998). "Politics as usual: Ciller, Refah and Susurluk: Turkey's troubled democracy." East European Quarterly, 32(4), 489-502. Retrieved February 20, 2011, from Research Library. (Document ID: 37754957).

Beyerle, Shaazka. "Turkey to Pakistan: Civic Action for Change." 2 April 2007, OpenDemocracy. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011. <http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-protest/turkey_pakistan_4494.jsp>

Meyer, James H. "Turkey's Leaders - Çiller's Scandals." Middle East Quarterly, September 1997. Online at: http://www.meforum.org/359/turkeys-leaders-cillers-scandals

Beyerle, Shaazka and Stephen Zunes. "Mobilizing Civic Action to End Corruption." IACC, Guatemala, Nov. 15 2006. <www.12iacc.org/archivos/WS_8.1_SHAASKA_BEYERLE.PDF>

Akay, Ezel. "A Call to End Corruption: One Minute of Darkness for Constant Light." New Tactics in Human Rights, 2003. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011. <http://www.newtactics.org/en/ACalltoEndCorruption>

Additional Notes: 
The primary action, turning out the lights for one minutes each night, was designed to be highly symbolic. The group organizing the protest named itself the Citizens' Initiative for Constant Light in order to highlight the message of shedding light on government corruption.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (21/07/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Elowyn Corby, 20/02/2011