Turkey is on fire and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the worst resistance from those who apparently did not like his move to build a mall at the site of Gezi Park right in the historic Taksim Square of Istanbul. But the on-going protests started against the construction of the Mall have gone viral gripping other Turkish cities and towns. The protests could have been contained with political acumen but have gone out of control because of brutal use of force. And the prime minister has not shown any signs of going soft which indicates that protests will ignite further resistance and more violence. These protests have amply demonstrated a divide between the ruling elite, president Gul and the PM. President Gul has advised the government to reconcile with protesters while the PM continues to believe that use of force is the appropriate answer to the on-going crisis.
Turkey political class, recently released from the yoke of military’s might was making efforts to turn around the country. The economy had started showing signs of improvement and the prime minister asserted his authority by prosecuting the generals. The violent protests in the infancy of the new democratic era may not be a good sign but the government could have done well to deal with the crisis in a democratic manner.
There are mounting concerns voiced by international community and the country’s secular elements that the Turkish regime under Erdogan is rapidly becoming authoritarian and distancing itself from the EU’s perspectives. Meanwhile, in Turkey’s political circles, and in the media and business world, the topic of the day is the need for an alternative to emerge to appeal to AKP’s traditionally conservative right-wing base that constitutes 60% of the population. This is particularly not good news for Erdogan who plans to contest presidential election next year. He may have to face Gul who also aspires to continue as president. His party is working on a draft of a new constitution which if comes into force will pack up the parliamentary system and replace it by the presidential system which will give him unlimited powers. Due to his party’s Islamic credentials, it is feared that Erdogan will assume the powers of the Caliphate and will run the country with decrees without sharing powers with any state institution including the parliament.
In this backdrop, the anti-Mall protests may not be as simple as they are being presented. The frustration and anger shown by Erdogan in dealing with the crisis with an iron hand evidently narrate a different story. It seems it may not be president Gul blocking the ambitions of Erdogan’s becoming a Caliph, there may be forces inimical to an Islamic order in Turkey who may be fueling violent protests to bring a change like the Arab Spring. That is the reason that Taksim Square has already been branded as Al Tehrir Square of Egypt. The power of social media, Facebook and Twitter, has been unleashed against the present regime. A recent statement of Erdogan that the demonstrations are the work of “extreme elements” and that they would likely spark a backlash against the organizers was provocative and showed that the matter would no longer be dealt with by the security forces. Erdogan plans of use his political supporters against the protesters. This would be a bad news for political stability in the country.
The protests began after plans were made to raze Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul, and replace it with a replica of 19th-century Ottoman barracks. The development would contain a shopping mall. What began as a sit-in by a handful of angry residents quickly grew into a larger protest. Riot police moved in, using tear gas and pepper spray. Protesters responded by hurling bottles, setting up barricades, blocking bulldozers and burning trash in the middle of the street. Then, outraged by the behavior of security forces, demonstrators began attacking police. The protests have since morphed into larger complaints against Erdogan, whom protesters call paternalistic and authoritarian.
The demolition of Gezi Park – the issue which sparked the protests – is a part of a wider urban redevelopment project in Istanbul. The government wants to pedestrianize and ease traffic around Taksim Square. Kalyon Group, a company which has close ties with the government, has been contracted to carry out the project. The project also includes building a shopping center which PM Erdogan says would not be “a traditional mall”, but rather would include cultural centers, an opera house and a mosque. The plan also includes rebuilding an Ottoman-era military barracks near the site and demolishing the historic Ataturk Cultural Centre. The government has been making ambiguous and inconsistent statements about the project, which is causing concern among protesters who oppose replacing the green city park with grey concrete.
If Erdogan government plans to destroy Ataturk relics from the country, it would have to tread cautiously. The protests have shown that there are people in Turkey who still hold Ataturk and his memories with great respect. Any attempt to bulldoze anti-Ataturk initiatives with force will polarize the Turks.
What if Erdogan Goes (Financial Times)
Turkish union supports protesters (bbc.co.uk)
- High-handed Erdogan: what lies behind the violence in Turkey (theweek.co.uk)