‘He has become like a dictator’

What started as a protest about the development of an Istanbul park is now an anti-government movement, and the scene is set for a showdown between the two defiant sides of Turkey

Mixed reception: supporters of the Turkish prime minister,  Recep Tayyip Erdogan,  wave the national flag on Friday as Erdogan returns to Istanbul from a tour of North Africa. At the same time, thousands of people protested at  Taksim Square, in the centre of Istanbul. Photograph:  Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Mixed reception: supporters of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wave the national flag on Friday as Erdogan returns to Istanbul from a tour of North Africa. At the same time, thousands of people protested at Taksim Square, in the centre of Istanbul. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

 

Hazal Oztetikler takes a break from planting saplings in a sun-dappled corner of Gezi Park, in downtown Istanbul, to reflect on how a small sit-in against the razing of the park has ballooned into the biggest crisis that Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced after more than a decade in power.

Oztetikler, a 25-year-old tour guide, was one of a handful of activists here more than a week ago when bulldozers moved in to rip up Gezi’s trees in preparation for the construction of Istanbul’s 109th shopping mall. That demonstration morphed into mass nationwide rallies after police attacked protesters with tear gas and water cannons.

Three people have died in the unrest, more than 4,000 have been injured and several hundred arrested.

When Erdogan denounced those on the streets as ideologically driven extremists and looters, calls went up for his resignation. “Tayyip Istifa [Resign]” is now the most common refrain as the leaderless protest movement, united only by an inchoate sense of grievance, fans across Turkey. “It started with a park; now I am not sure where it will end,” Oztetikler says. “But we have discovered the power of the people when they unite. This is just the beginning.”

Like many of Gezi’s youthful protesters, Oztetikler was little more than a child when Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, AKP, took office in 2002. Three successive electoral victories since then mean her generation has known no other party.

Now many have begun to chafe under what they say is Erdogan’s narrow, majoritarian view of democracy: his apparent belief that a huge mandate – half of Turkish voters plumped for the AKP in the 2011 election, almost twice as many as those who voted for the biggest opposition party, the CHP – gives him the right to do what he likes with little regard for the other 50 per cent.

They see his uncompromising stance on the quickening protests as a reflection of this. Dismissing the demonstrators’ legitimacy, Erdogan stated baldly that “the will of the people is manifested at the ballot box”. He warned the protesters that if they brought 100,000 people to Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square, adjacent to Gezi Park, he could find a million of his own supporters to counter them.


Embrace all strands
It was a far cry from the man who pledged, in 2008, that the AKP would embrace all strands of society regardless of political orientation. “What happened to that Erdogan?” asks Mustafa, a bank worker who joined the protests at Gezi Park. “We want a government that acknowledges and takes care of all its people, not just those who vote for the AKP.”

A closer look at those who have either taken to the streets, sided with the protesters, or expressed misgivings over Erdogan’s handling of the crisis reveals a more complex picture than the famously tough-talking prime minister has sought to paint. The tens, some say hundreds, of thousands who have converged on Taksim Square and on other cities and towns this week constitute a diverse cross-section of Turkish society that transcends the traditional secular versus Islamic divide.

A number of the country’s largest unions have turned up en masse, as have more than 1,000 university lecturers, joining a motley selection of environmentalists, nationalists, Marxists, LGBT activists, Kurds, designer-clad Istanbulites and Alevis, who constitute the country’s largest religious minority.

Some have come to Taksim Square because they support the initial protests against the Gezi development and what one architect-turned-activist described as the “Disneyfication” of Istanbul’s rich heritage.

Many more say they want to show their anger over the police crackdown. “We are here because we are against every sort of oppression,” explains Necati, a pensioner, accompanied by his wife, Cemile, who wears a headscarf. “Everyone should be able to express their views. Turkey is a democracy, after all.”

Also present, although in smaller numbers, are AKP voters such as Belka Kaya, a veiled student from Fatih, one of Istanbul’s most conservative neighbourhoods. Kaya opposes the destruction of Gezi Park and several of her friends, devout Turks like her, have taken part in the protests.

“[Erdogan] is wrong; this is not ideological,” she argues. “This is not about secular versus conservative; it is more complicated than that. Turkey today is more complicated than that. Erdogan needs to listen.”

The prime minister shows little sign of doing that. Returning to Istanbul in the early hours of yesterday morning after an official visit to north Africa, he drew cheers from supporters gathered at the airport with remarks that again appeared to frame Turkey’s convulsions in terms of “us versus them”; AKP voters against the rest.


Hardline stance
Erdogan’s hardline stance stems from a confidence that analysts say may prove hubristic. Under his leadership, Turkey has experienced average annual growth of more than 5 per cent. It has implemented enough reforms to have kickstarted accession negotiations with the EU in 2005 and has begun tentative peace talks with Kurdish separatists. The AKP’s Turkey has been held up as a model for how to meld democracy and Islam, particularly in countries emerging from decades of dictatorship in the Middle East and north Africa.

Erdogan’s blunt style has played well in the AKP heartlands of central Anatolia, where the party’s base is capitalist and religiously conservative. But many secular-leaning Turks have long been wary of the man who once referred to democracy as a train you ride until you get to your destination. They talk of “culture wars” and what they see as a creeping Islamicisation under the AKP.

Recent moves to restrict the sale of alcohol have deepened this sense of unease, as has a warning to metro passengers in Ankara to “act in line with moral laws” after a couple were caught kissing on a train. Others have grown alarmed at the jailing of scores of journalists and opposition activists, and at the fact that large-scale developments, such as that in Gezi Park, have been given the go-ahead with little or no public consultation.

But criticisms of Erdogan’s leadership are not confined to Turkey’s more liberal spheres, particularly after the events of the past week. Even before the Gezi Park protests erupted, some AKP supporters were uncomfortable with Erdogan’s bid to accumulate even more power by changing Turkey’s constitution to expand the role of president, for which he plans to run in the next election.

“He has become like a dictator,” says Serdar Erguven, a newsagent in Kasimpasa, the gritty, conservative Istanbul district where Erdogan grew up. “The way he speaks to the people is not acceptable for a prime minister.”

Some residents of Kasimpasa refer to Erdogan as “Baba”, the Turkish word for father, and support for the AKP is all but taken for granted. But there are others, such as Hatice Aydeniz, who wears a headscarf, who have grown weary of his overbearing attitude. She is appalled by his constant exhortations for women to have at least three children. “The prime minister is trying to enter people’s bedrooms. It is too much.” Another denizen of Kasimpasa compares Erdogan to an Ottoman sultan who expects gratitude from his people, no matter what.

Other erstwhile allies, including the Gulen movement, a powerful religious network linked to several major companies and media outlets in Turkey, have raised concerns over Erdogan’s high-handed approach.

In typically oblique remarks, Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who leads the movement from exile in the US, has acknowledged the demands of the protesters as legitimate and the violence used against them as reprehensible. Columnists at a newspaper linked to Gulen have griped about Erdogan’s leadership style.

The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, who, like Erdogan, is a founding member of the AKP, struck a more emollient note this week, telling reporters that “democracy is not just about elections” and that the protesters’ message had been received. “What is necessary will be done,” Gul said, going on to compare the demonstrations to the Occupy movement in the US.

The deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, has also adopted a conciliatory tone and apologised for the excessive use of police force. But such attempts to defuse rising tensions appear moot when Erdogan later vows to push ahead with the Gezi Park plans and says the demonstrators were manipulated by terrorist groups.


Showdown
The scene is now set for a showdown between a defiant prime minister and an equally defiant protest movement.

“What began with Gezi is now about Erdogan,” says Cetin, a PhD student and member of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a group of academics, architects and environmentalists formed to preserve the square.

“This is one of the most representative movements Turkey has ever seen on this scale. It has broken Erdogan’s potence in the eyes of the people. The problem is he is not reflective enough to realise the limits of his own power, and that may prove his undoing.”

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