Demonstrations pose biggest challenge yet to prime minister and expose government influence over media
Constanze Letsch in Istanbul
- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 2 June 2013 12.30 EDT
Turkish protesters controlled Istanbul’s main square again on Sunday after two days of violent clashes with rampaging riot police, despite being dismissed as an “extremist fringe” by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The demonstrations have been the biggest popular challenge to the prime minister after a decade in power, and serve as a setback for his ambitions to extend his powers.
What started last Monday as a relatively small, peaceful protest to save an inner city park from having to make way for a kitschy, Ottoman-style shopping centre rapidly snowballed into the largest and most violent anti-government protests that Turkey has seen in years.
Hundreds sustained injuries, some serious, as a result of the heavy-handed police intervention and the excessive use of teargas. Riot police withdrew from the capital on Saturday evening, handing victory to the demonstrators.
The protests spread across the country like wildfire, to half of the country’s 81 provinces, according to the interior ministry. It added that 939 people had been arrested in 90 demonstrations and protests all over the country, while damage costs have not yet been announced.
“Erdogan does not listen to anyone any more,” said Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University. “Not even to members of his own party. But after the protests this weekend, he will have to accept that he is the prime minister of a democratic country, and that he cannot rule it on his own.”
The dramatic events in Istanbul and other Turkish cities also exposed the complicity and almost complete government control of mainstream Turkish media, which largely failed to report on the protests.
“The Turkish media have embarrassed themselves,” Caliskan said. “While the whole world was broadcasting from Taksim Square, Turkish television stations were showing cooking shows. It is now very clear that we do not have press freedom in Turkey.”
Human rights groups have repeatedly expressed their concerns about the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey, and Erdogan routinely criticises media outlets and journalists who do not agree with his views and those of his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).
Opposition party figures urged Erdogan to listen to people instead of trying to silence them.
“After 1 June, the policy of ‘for the people despite the people’ is bankrupt. [The government] will have to listen to the people’s opinions on mega-projects. Now is the time of participatory decision-making,” said Hasip Kaplan, an MP of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP).
Despite opposition from urban planners and environmentalists, the AKP government is pushing ahead with a number of huge construction projects that include a third bridge over the Bosphorus, a third airport and a giant mosque.
Caliskan thinks these plans might have to be buried or at least altered after the protests this weekend, along with the AKP’s recent plans to restrict alcohol consumption, ban abortion and install an Erdogan-led presidency in Turkey.
The prime minister’s key political project is to enact a new constitution, making the government system presidential rather than parliamentary. After 10 years as prime minister, his aim is to become Turkey’s first directly elected president with strong executive powers.
He may have hurt his chances of seeing that happen this weekend.
“Erdogan’s dream of a presidency is over,” said Caliskan, “as is the myth of his invincibility. The last five days have shown that he cannot simply ignore the people who criticise him.”
Other analysts underline that the Turkish prime minister is still one of Turkey’s most popular politicians, and stress that while his image of being all-powerful may have been tarnished by this weekend’s events, the ruling AKP benefits from the absence of a coherent and strong opposition to challenge him at the ballot box.
Erdogan’s response to the challenge was aggressive rhetoric in three speeches on Saturday and Sunday. But he also de-escalated by having the columns of riot police abandon Taksim Square, allowing the demonstrators to revel in a street party.
Simultaneously, though, there were very violent scenes in the waterfront district of Besiktas late on Saturday and reports of violence in Ankara on Sunday.
The contest appears far from over. Erdogan unapologetically refused to back down on the development project that triggered the protests – the demolition of the city centre park to make way for a shopping centre, mosque and a replica of an old military barracks.
“I am not going to seek the permission of [the opposition] or a handful of plunderers,” he said. “If they call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator’, I have nothing to say. My only concern has been to serve my country … I am not the master of the people. Dictatorship does not run in my blood or in my character. I am the servant of the people.”