Turkey’s largest city was divided on Sunday by competing shows of force, between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who staged a mammoth rally of loyalists, and anti-government demonstrators, who clashed with police on Istanbul's streets once again to protest his rule.
After 17 days of street violence that have posed an unprecedented challenge to Mr. Erdogan’s decade in power, he told a crowd of hundreds of thousands: “My patience has run out.”
Using language that belittled the protesters as disrespectful and irrelevant, Erdogan appeared to point the finger of blame at everyone except himself and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), citing instead the party's economic triumphs and democratic reforms. His supporters were similarly dismissive, repeatedly calling the protest movement centered on Taksim Square a "big game," a catch phrase that sums up Erdogan's belief that the demonstrations are an outside conspiracy fanned by foreign media.
“I love Erdogan. Everything is perfect,” says Sedat Boyraz, a sailor among the sea of rally-goers waving Turkish and AKP flags. Few doubted Erdogan could muster massive crowds, having been elected three times with ever-increasing mandates, most recently with 50 percent of the vote in 2011.
“In Taksim it is a very big game.… All these groups in Taksim don’t want Turkey to be successful,” says Mr. Boyraz. “Taksim is not the reality in Turkey. The reality is here,” he says, pointing to the cheering Erdogan supporters behind him, and echoing the prime minister’s own words from the stage.
Erdogan has ordered protests to end: Police recaptured Taksim Square and dismantled makeshift barricades on June 7; then last night, amid clouds of tear gas, they evicted sit-in protesters camping in the adjacent Gezi Park.
Both actions sparked nights of running clashes, calls for a mass march on Taksim Square today, and a strike by five trade unions to begin on Monday. A protest that started as a small bid to save Gezi Park trees from a development project has spiraled into an assault on Erdogan’s abrasive leadership style, with charges of authoritarian rule.
“I am your servant, not your leader,” Erdogan declared. At times in his two hour speech he called on the crowd to cheer so that “they” – the protesters several miles away, attempting to gather in the center of town – would be afraid.
“The issue is not about the park, it is about Turkey,” said Erdogan, who has often used “us vs. them” language when stating that his loyalists far outnumber the protesters, most of whom are young, more Westernized, and more secular Turks. “They tried to instigate instability in this country but they will never succeed.”
Erdogan, protesters have met
Erdogan noted that he had met with twice with protest groups, but with little result.
“They say, ‘You are too tough.’ They say, ‘Dictator,’" said Erdogan. “What kind of a dictator is this, who met the Gezi Park occupiers and honest environmentalists? Is there such a dictator?"
Erdogan blamed a host of “provocateurs” for the violence – from protesters using social media and global news organizations like the BBC and CNN, to college deans and English teachers – and vowed that “we will find them one by one.”
The Turkish leader also drew what he claimed to be a conspiracy between protester “terrorist organizations” and two other events – a double car bombing in May near the Syrian border which killed 52, blamed on a Turk who claimed he was working for Syrian intelligence; and an attack on Erdogan's office in March at the AKP headquarters in Ankara, claimed by a radical leftist group.
Despite the divisive rhetoric, the atmosphere at the rally was relaxed, compared to the scenes just a few miles away at the center of town, where police fought protesters who had marched toward Taksim Square along every access road. Groups of police chased protesters down narrow alleys and broad avenues, firing tear gas and making arrests.
Banging of pots
As Erdogan began speaking, protesters began banging pots and pans in the streets and from balconies in a symbolic effort to drown him out. Similar noise-making – dismissed by Erdogan as a weak tactic – has been heard throughout central Istanbul at 9 pm every night for two weeks.
Protesters have demanded that Erdogan apologize for heavy-handed police action and excessive use of tear gas. They also called for resignations of key officials and security chiefs involved in the clampdown, and the preservation of the Gezi Park and its trees – one of the few green spaces in the center of the city – which had been slated for removal to make way for a development project.
“Any call [to gather] in Taksim will not contribute to peace and security,” Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said. “After the current environment becomes stable, they can continue exercising their democratic rights. Under current circumstances we will not allow any gathering.”
City buses were used to ferry AKP rally-goers to the venue for free. Party leaflets distributed throughout Istanbul billed the event with the words: "Let’s spoil the big game. Let’s write history!”
The protesters complain that Erdogan is running a “majoritarian democracy,” and does not consult minority social and political groups who feel ignored and excluded by AKP rule.
“He’s a man. I love his characteristics,” says Talha, a political science student at the rally who declined to give his last name. “I think the Taksim problem is fixed. There is a problem, but it is democratic. Protesting is okay, it is only when they throw stones that it is a problem.”
“I am very proud of our president and prime minister,” says Busra Uzun, a female student wearing a hijab at the rally. She carried a sign that read: “Be smart, don’t fall for the big game.” She says Gezi Park protesters had been “duped.”
Erdogan was speaking to those supporters, with his defiant words. He made no apology for the events that have shaken Turkish markets and Turkey’s reputation. And he praised the police and their "restrained" efforts, and said that ordering the clearing Gezi Park was his “duty as prime minister, otherwise there would be no point in my being in office.”
* Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott