Erdogan and the Taksim protests: Mismanaging Turkish politics?

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 4 Jun 2013

Despite the popularity of Turkish premier Erdogan, Turkey has been witnessing country-wide anti-government protests this week

Protesters gather for the third day of nationwide anti-government protest at the Taskim square in Istanbul, Sunday, June 2, 2013 (Photo: AP)

The achievements of Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been sufficient to provide him with a kind of popularity that is exceptional in the political history of Turkey.

Ankara’s economic boom, impressive democratic transformation and influential regional role had redefined the reputation of political Islam among the Muslim-majority, but arguably secular, population.

Analysts, however, say that the recent violent events in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have created new realities on the ground.

Protests began on 28 May, when demonstrators occupied Gezi park in Istanbul in protest at plans to get rid of the park and replace it with a shopping mall. A violent response from police led to further protests on subsequent days.

At least 100 people were injured on that day, according to medical reports, with police showing no compunction about using teargas and water cannons.

More than 1,700 people were arrested as protests spread to 67 cities in Turkey, interior minister Muammer Guler told Anatolia news agency.

Guler said that those arrested were released after being "questioned and identified" and vowing legal action against police officers who acted "disproportionately."

Mohamed Hemish, a freelance writer based in Istanbul, said that Erdogan seems to "be spoiled by power" after nearly a decade at the top.

"He views backing down on the project as a loss to the opposition who he claims are the ones who staged this whole protest - although his speech indicated that he will not continue with the project," he said.

"However, the police withdrawal from Taksim Square means that the government is trying to contain the protests and stay away from escalation, which is a good sign and testament to the fact that the situation in not an Arab spring case," Hemish argued.

Following the police withdrawal, Erdogan publicly announced that "there have been some mistakes" in terms of the police response.

He urged protesters to stop their demonstrations "immediately", a call that protesters have not heeded.

Erdogan’s popularity: An issue in question

There is no doubt among many Turks that Erdogan is a prime minister who has contributed considerably to the well-being of the state since he came to office in 2003.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced budget restrictions and managed to resolve the catastrophic financial crunch that had hit Turkey 2001, with growth rates reaching eight percent in 2010 and 2011.

In terms of political achievements, hundreds of military officers have been imprisoned on charges of planning military coups, a feature of Turkish political life prior to AKP’s administration.

Erdogan has made no secret of his ambition to run for presidency in the 2014 elections after the end of his latest term.

"Erdogan is going to be elected president anyway, since he is so popular. But he doesn’t only want to be elected president, but also to introduce a kind of presidentialism that will concentrate power in his hands," Sahin Alpay, political science professor at Bahcesehir University, told Ahram Online in April.

Yet, other analysts argue that the AKP's popularity, and even that of Erdogan himself, suggests new realities after the Taksim clashes.

"The focus, at least in slogans chanted by the public, has been on Erdogan himself, rather than his AKP," Didem Collinsworth, analyst of Turkish affairs at the International Crisis Group, told Ahram Online.

Collinsworth argues that Erdogan might be able to secure close to 50 percent of the votes in next elections, claiming that the protests will be a "wake-up call" to his government as a significant part of the population feels "angry and frustrated".

"Still, it would be a shame if these events overshadowed the positive developments that happened under the AKP government, such as the latest peace with Turkey's insurgency, the PKK, which is going well," Collinsworth concluded.

Leftist journalist, Alp Altinors, however, insists that the masses are "fed up with the arrogance" of Erdogan.

"An estimated number of 3,000,000 people have taken part in the demonstration in support for the Gezi park, and against government violence. What this process questions is the absolute authority which Erdogan wants to establish," Altinors told Ahram Online.

"The AKP passed a law restricting alcohol sales and began to demolish the only green area of Taksim Square to make a shopping centre and luxury houses. The ecological resistance to defend Gezi park was repressed with ultra-heavy police violence."

Last month, Turkey outlawed the selling of alcohol from 10pm to 6am, and mandated health warnings on alcohol packaging.

In 2002, the AKP imposed higher taxes on alcohol, and stopped serving alcoholic drinks on Turkish airlines.

Ankara’s EU dream

The international community responded rapidly to events in Turkey.

The US, Britain, France, and various international human rights bodies such as Human Rights Watch called on Turkey to protect the rights and freedoms of protesters and work on reaching a settlement to the crisis.

The EU, membership of which has long been sought by the AKP, also issued statements with a similar condemnatory tone, with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressing "deep concern" on Monday about the violence in Istanbul.

"Erdogan's brutal suppression of non-violent demonstrations and his utter disregard for individual rights and freedoms raises doubts as to whether Turkey continues to meet the Copenhagen criteria [the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union]," Aykan Erdemir, a Republican People’s Party (CHP) member of the parliament and member of the EU-Turkey Parliamentary Committee, told Ahram Online.

"We expect our friends in the EU to be in solidarity with the Turkish people as they continue their brave struggle against Erdogan's brutal authoritarianism; there is a need to keep the accession project alive, and this requires commitment on both sides of the negotiation table."

Marietje Schaake, member of European Parliament, recommended a meeting between the Turkish government and EU leaders to discuss a way for Turkey towards "more inclusion, pluralism and respect for human rights."

"That is what the EU wishes to see for Turkey and all its inhabitants," Schaake concluded.

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