Turks harbour mixed feelings about Erdogan in wake of Gezi protests
The big rallies may be over but unease at the PM’s growing power still lingers
Riot police guard the entrance of Gezi Park as anti-government protesters shout slogans at Taksim square in central Istanbul.
As the sun sets over Istanbul, hundreds sit cross-legged along Istiklal Caddesi, its busiest pedestrian street, preparing for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast.
It is a rather incongruous picnic: plates of food are laid on the ground as curious tourists walk past. Just a few metres away, scores of riot police stand watching.
Now and then a chant goes up from those gathered for the makeshift iftar: usually references to the clashes that erupted on nearby Taksim Square in late May when police moved on demonstrators protesting plans to redevelop an adjoining park. “This is a symbolic iftar,” says Ahmet, a student who took part in the initial demonstrations. “We’re here to make a statement. Our protest continues despite everything.”
Two months have passed since anger over police use of force against protesters trying to prevent the razing of Gezi Park ballooned into a wider expression of discontent towards Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP).
Five demonstrators and one police officer were killed as protests rippled across the country, prompting the most serious unrest Turkey had witnessed in years. While sporadic protests – and arrests – still take place in Istanbul, the nationwide rallies have abated, leaving Turks mulling over what the Gezi Park demonstrations say about their country, its government – and its future.
Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric – he repeatedly denounced the protesters as “looters”, “marginals”, agents of foreign powers and shadowy speculators bent on undermining the Turkish lira – has not been forgotten. His framing of the biggest challenge he has faced in more than a decade in power fired up the AKP base but further alienated the other half of the population that did not vote for the party.
“Turkey has calmed down but it is still very tense and the frustrations of both sides are stronger than ever,” says Mustafa Akyol, columnist for the Hurriyet daily. “The government’s propaganda that this was a conspiracy against Turkey has convinced many. The country’s political camps are now more bitter towards each other.”
Across the Bosphorus on Istanbul’s Asian side, Turkey’s EU minister Egemen Bagis breaks his fast with the AKP faithful at a public iftar in the working-class neighbourhood of Umraniye. Several thousand residents sit at tables along a sloping street. Bagis and AKP officials give rousing speeches extolling Turkey’s progress.
When Bagis makes a dismissive reference to the Gezi Park protests, arguing it was an attempt to hamper Turkey’s rise, the crowd bursts into applause.
“These are conservative people, they were against the demonstrations,” says one of the minister’s aides. There is one discordant note, however: when Bagis and his entourage visit a nearby mosque, a young woman wearing shorts and carrying a Turkish flag turns up outside, looking agitated. It appears she is there to protest but she leaves after locals quietly remonstrate with her.