Will Erdogan's referendum bid be enough to quiet Turkey's furious crowds?

Prime Minister Erdogan has proposed that the fate of Gezi Park be put to a vote, but protesters are deeply skeptical the process will be enough to address underlying problems.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Turkish opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate the absence of police and their control of Taksim Square and of makeshift barricades to protest what they say is Mr. Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule in Istanbul, Turkey, June 8, 2013.

Taking one of its first steps toward ending two weeks of nationwide protest, the Turkish government has proposed a referendum on the fate of the park that sparked demonstrations. The referendum would let voters decide if Gezi Park will stay or if developers will demolish it and build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks to house shops, hotels, and apartments.

A central complaint for any of those occupying Gezi Park has been what they see as the autocratic style of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While the referendum proposal may be a move toward greater dialogue with the protesters, many Erdogan critics view it with skepticism, underscoring the deep distrust that has formed between protesters and the AKP government

If Mr. Erdogan plans to win the trust of those who now regularly call for his resignation during rallies, an openness to dialogue is critical. After winning 50 percent of the vote in the last election in 2011, Erdogan has pursued a number of conservative policies unpopular with the other half of the country who did not vote for him.

“It has become clear that he can’t rule Turkey the way he has been for the past three or four years. The remaining 50 percent wants to be acknowledged and respected. They will not be pushed around like they were before,” says Haluk Sahin, a professor of communications at Istanbul Bilgi University and a columnist. 

Tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets when police used tear gas and violent methods on May 31  to disband a peaceful sit-in that had gathered to protect the park. The demonstrations have since broadened, centering on accusations that Erdogan has begun behaving more like a dictator than a democratically elected leader.

“It’s not about Gezi Park anymore. It’s about a much bigger situation now,” says Baris Guvenenler, a cello player in Gezi Park. “The park has become a symbol.”

News of the potential referendum came on Wednesday night, a day after some of the most violent clashes between police and protesters in Turkey’s recent history. Among others, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International immediately condemned the police response.

“If Turkey is to be counted among rights-respecting countries, the police brutality has to stop and the government should talk to the protesters,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW’s Turkey researcher, in an official statement.

Demonstrators and others at odds with the government say they are skeptical of its commitment to conducting a free and fair referendum about the park. Many point out that Erdogan could have held such a vote long before the situation escalated to clashes between protesters and police.

“We don’t trust the results of these elections. Maybe they’ll change the results,” says Yasin Arslan, an aeronautical engineer now in Gezi Park.

And people with no connection to the park could turn out to vote, he adds. “Istanbul is a big city. There are a lot of people who don’t know this park so the decision must ask the people who live around the park, not all of Istanbul,” he says.

As Erdogan formulates his strategy for dealing with protests, his only input from protesters has reportedly come from local entertainers whose connection to the Gezi Park activists is unclear. Erdogan’s choice to meet with figures viewed as marginal by most people in Gezi Park was interpreted by many as a sign of the prime minister’s disinterest in substantively working with protesters to find a mutually acceptable solution.

“He just wants to do what he wants to do,” says Buke Cuhadar, a protester who works for a nongovernmental organization. “They’re talking to all the wrong people. They do not represent the majority of people in this park. He’s doing this because he doesn’t want to negotiate.”

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