Erdogan's defiant style keeps Turkish protesters fueled with anger

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's uncompromising response to widespread protests has kept many out on the streets, angered by what they describe as his 'dictatorial' rule.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/TCSM
Turkish protesters battle police with stones and makeshift barricades through clouds of tear gas, beside Dolmabahçe Palace near the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to protest what they say is his increasingly authoritarian rule, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday.

After a relatively calm day in Istanbul yesterday, protesters in Turkey resurrected their antigovernment demonstrations overnight, with several thousand marching on the landmark Ottoman-era palace where the target of their anger, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, often hosts official events.

The continued rage against Mr. Erdogan’s abrasive and uncompromising style – though he remains Turkey’s most popular politician, with 50 percent of the electorate behind him – is raising questions about how the violence will or will not change the political calculus at the highest levels of government. 

Around 2 am today, protesters used a large mechanical digger to break police lines and advance alongside the walls of the Dolmabahçe Palace, throwing stones and erecting barricades amid swirls of choking tear gas. Police decisively counterattacked, breaking the back of the advance by firing waves of tear gas as they ran forward.

The fight was among the most significant in a third day of unrest aimed at what protesters chant is Erdogan’s “dictatorial” and “fascist” rule. Yesterday alone, demonstrations erupted in more than 200 locations in 67 cities across Turkey. 

“If [Erdogan] takes a lesson from this, and moves on to a more reconciliatory and participatory democracy, he will keep his success and keep on winning elections,” says Mustafa Akyol, a political commentator and columnist for Hurriyet Daily News. “But if he insists on this style, which has been frustrating [in some] treatment of society, then you will see more things like this in the future.”

“I think the people around Erdogan see that this is a historic lesson for them. Erdogan is still very angry and defiant, but even he backed off a little bit. He needs some soul-searching, I think, in the days ahead, and we will see,” says Mr. Akyol, author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” 

"Part of the problem is Turkey itself,” notes Akyol. “This is a political culture in which fans want their leaders to be defiant, aggressive, uncompromising, and many people were tweeting last night in Turkish, ‘Erdogan should never back off in the face of these looters and bastards.’” 

'Not just about voting'

The protest began as a small sit-in at the park a week ago, in a bid to prevent the uprooting of the trees to build a shopping center in a faux Ottoman-style barracks. Heavy-handed police tactics to break it up turned the cause into a magnet last Friday for a decade of accumulated complaints against Erdogan's rule. The big park project – which would remove a tree-lined park to make way for a development project – was seen to be imposed by officials with little outside input, against the wishes of many locals, shop owners and even architects.

Throughout Sunday, protesters celebrated regaining control of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square after two days of street battles forced police to retreat. But it was not clear yet the ultimate direction that the worst antigovernment protests in years would take Turkey or its leader. 

Erdogan was defensive this morning, as he departed for a scheduled four-day trip to North Africa. “What is the message [of the protests]? I want to hear it from you,” Erdogan told journalists. “What can a softened tone be like? Can you tell me?”

President Abdullah Gul offered a more conciliatory tone. “Democracy is not just about voting [someone into power]. The message [the protesters want to convey] has been taken. What is necessary will be done,” Mr. Gul told journalists in Ankara this morning. “Turkey’s democracy has been tested.”

Analysts say the "good cop, bad cop" routine indicates that protests have shaken the government. Heavy-handed police efforts to break up that protest are what caused it to escalate into three days of violence – and a broader call for inclusive leadership from Erdogan. 

Most of those protesting were secular Turks who have grated against the decade-long premiership of Erdogan and his ruling, Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). They have now been joined by more fringe radical and revolutionary groups, and even football hooligans, all of whom have clashed with police in the past. 

Private lives

Those on the front lines of the protest take issue with recent decisions by the AKP to delve into their private lives. They cite a recent decision to quickly push through measures to limit alcohol consumption, and even the admonishment by an official of a couple who kissed in public. That resulted in "kiss-in" protests. Erdogan has also spoken of all those who drink as "alcoholics," and dismissed the protesters as terrorists and "wild extremists."

“It would be great if the government could find a way to engage with the mainstream – and there is a big mainstream element – if only to [prevent] more of the ugly scenes of these nighttime battles that are sometimes led by quite radical political elements,” says Hugh Pope, the Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group in Istanbul. 

“This really is much more about the style of government in Turkey, not seeking revolution,” says Mr. Pope. “As soon as the government can find a way to digest what’s happened … they should get on with it and try to bring some kind of resolution."

“Erdogan has done U-turns before, and he’s a very valuable politician for Turkey – things like this Kurdish [peace] possibility that we have is the best chance to fix a problem that has killed 30,000 people, and is far more expensive than this last bunch of protests,” says Pope. 

“Above all, the demonstrations are emotional, a sense of emotional exclusion, and if the prime minister can deal with it and include them, he can bring this back,” add Pope. “But there’s quite a lot of fizz in it yet.”  

'Take some lessons'

Erdogan has made no secret of his wish to run for the presidency in 2014, a prospect that weighs on his political opponents who have seen the AKP keep power by transforming Turkey’s economy into a growth machine – virtually untouched by the economic downturns in Europe – and providing unprecedented political stability in the modern era. He portrays the park project, which he has vowed not to halt, as "good" for Turks and an essential part of economic growth.

There have so far been no casualties. Despite countless volleys of tear gas canisters being fired, blanketing some Istanbul neighborhoods for hours at a time in recent days, lethal force has not been used. But the spread of the protests, and certainly their aggressive nature in Istanbul and Ankara, are warning signs to some that the government has key choices to make. 

“The government should behave; they should be calm, silent, think about it a little bit, and not provoke an anger like this anymore,” says Akyol, the political commentator. “Erdogan’s political instincts are on that side.… Intuitively he is uncompromising, threatening, defiant, underdog. We will see if that will dominate, or the other line … which is restraint, let’s calm people down, let’s take some lessons.”

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