Turkey's protesters seize world's attention, but what's their goal?

Turkey's protest movement is burgeoning, but has so far failed to find a common goal or person to coalesce around, other than opposing Prime Minister Erdogan.

Kostas Tsironis/AP
Protesters sit on top of a damaged mini bus during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Monday. Turkish riot police launched round after round of tear gas against protesters on Monday, the fourth day of violent demonstrations, as the president and the prime minister staked competing positions on the unrest.

As police clashed with demonstrators for the fourth night in Istanbul, a number of protesters worried that the movement is growing faster than its ability to organize around common goals, beyond that of opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even the question of whether the prime minister should resign is a bigger issue than some demonstrators say they were originally prepared to face.

When Veysel Isik first joined the protests four days ago, he came out because he was frustrated with the violent tactics police used to break up a peaceful sit-in in Istanbul's Gezi Park, as well as a new law that restricts the marketing and sale of alcohol. Now, amid tens of thousands of demonstrators calling for a change in government, he says, “I don’t know what I want because this park is not the problem anymore, and now people say the prime minister must go.”

Since Friday, protests have spread to at least 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, hundreds of people have been arrested, and last night the protests reportedly claimed their first casualty killed by gunfire during a demonstration in Antakya in southern Turkey. 

Meanwhile, Erdogan has showed little willingness to compromise.

Protests are likely to continue for weeks, but those who have taken to the streets say they’re concerned the opposition lacks a viable replacement to Erdogan, something that could eventually erode the unity now felt by protesters.

“The most important thing is that if Erdogan resigns, there is not another leader to take his place,” says Cem Ozturk, an engineering student who returned from London to participate in the protests. “Now we are united against Erdogan ... but if the prime minister resigns, it will not be like this anymore.”

To emphasize his point, Mr. Ozturk turns to his friend, who supports an opposition party, and asks his friend if he will support Ozturk's party if the prime minister leaves. His friend issues an emphatic "no."

Without one opposition party considered a clear alternative to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ozturk says he worries about the demonstrators’ ability to organize on issues outside their shared displeasure with the current government.

The protests lack a singular leader, and are organized instead by an ad hoc collection of groups who coordinate demonstrations over social media and by word of mouth. Those involved generally oppose police brutality and say that Erdogan’s government has become too authoritarian, but beyond that, they lack a list of universal goals that can guide them going forward. 

In Istanbul, protests have fallen into a cycle. Demonstrators march to barricades they’ve constructed and clash with police. Some throw stones, and the police fire back with tear gas. When those without gas masks become overwhelmed, they march back to Taksim Square and Gezi Park, where police have withdrawn and a block party atmosphere has taken over, with constant singing, dancing, and chanting.

“There is no leader, and everyone feels like we should go to Taksim now,” says Murat Cifci, a civil engineer. Sitting with friends in Gezi Park in the first hours of Tuesday morning as clouds of tear gas drift in from clashes several blocks away, he says he does not like Erdogan, but he’s also not happy with any of the other political parties.

“We don’t have any idea about the future because we don’t have a leader now. There is not anyone who can save us,” he says.

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