Istanbul, Turkey – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have responded to weeks-long anti-government demonstrations by adding fuel to the fire, in the form of a massive police crackdown and uncompromising rhetoric.
What began as a small environmental protest over the government-proposed demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park is now a nationwide anti-government movement that is showing little sign of abating. On Monday, five of the country’s unions began a strike and protesters again took to the streets across the country.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, threatened to deploy the army if demonstrations continued.
Many are wondering what the crisis means in the long-term for Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Is it a passing storm in the evolution of Turkish democracy, or will tensions become more entrenched?
For now, the demonstrations are likely to continue. “This can last weeks, if not months,” said Ahmet Sozen, head of the political science and international relations department at North Cyprus’ Eastern Mediterranean University.
Police and protesters clashed in central areas of Istanbul following an aggressive speech by Erdogan to hundreds of thousands of his supporters on Sunday. Police swept through neighbourhoods around Gezi Park and the city’s Taksim Square, firing tear gas and peering into apartments, detaining 441 people. Pro-government vigilantes were also seen on the streets on Sunday night armed with clubs.
|Protesters clash with riot police in Istanbul [Getty Images]|
Clashes also occurred in Ankara, the capital. In Konya, a pro-government stronghold, Erdogan’s supporters attacked protesters, according to Turkish daily Hurriyet.
While a massive police deployment on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara is meant to counter the protesters, Sozen said this new opposition movement would be more difficult for Erdogan and the AKP to face than previous challenges.
He described the recent unrest as a significant game-changer for Turkish politics, with the AKP not facing a rival in years.
While there is no leader or exact vision, Sozen said one of the strengths of the protest movement was that it is not a traditional political party, such as the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) or Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), both of which Erdogan has eviscerated.
“Erdogan plays with the CHP or MHP like a cat plays with mice. This is something different, this is a different animal. So Erdogan does not know how to deal with this.”
The prime minister and his inner-circle retaliated by claiming they were the victims of an international conspiracy supported by local opposition businessmen.
“They chose to believe all what is going on is a product of foreign elements, some international forces with their domestic allies trying to create instability and remove him from power,” said Cengiz Candar, a political Turkish political commentator and journalist.
The AKP sees the protesters as a minority within Turkey’s population that are unwilling to respect Erdogan’s consistent electoral victories, or appreciate what he has accomplished for the country.
Since Erdogan came to power a decade ago, Turkey has grown into an international investment hotspot, and has increased its political power throughout the region.
But Erdogan no longer appears interested in negotiating with the demonstrators, after he offered to hold off on the demolition of Gezi Park until a court decided on its legality and the holding of a referendum on its future.
“The Gezi incident has become a golden opportunity for [Erdogan].“
– Emrullah Uslu, Yeditepe University
The protesters say Erdogan’s offer was insincere because he controlled the courts and could win any popular vote.
“He really thought he was the good prime minister, that he was trying to help people,” said Emrullah Uslu, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University.
“When people show their disappointment, their discomfort with him, he feels betrayed,” Uslu said.
In response, it appears that Erdogan has chosen an inward-looking policy, as local and presidential elections approach next year.
While at the start of the demonstrations, various AKP officials appeared willing to compromise with the protesters, they have now closed ranks around Erdogan.
If there is internal debate within the AKP about the divisive response to the protests, it is only happening on a personal basis.
“His party members are not in a state of debating anything now. They are on a war footing,” Candar said.
Sozen agreed, saying opposition to Erdogan within the AKP would not present itself now: “They are not in that critical moment yet where they would start raising their voices.”
The thunderous start to the elections campaign is indicative of the existential terms with which Erdogan views the upcoming vote. In previous polls, the prime minister cast himself as the underdog or a victim fighting a greater power, usually the Turkish military or “deep-state”.
Having won his battle against those forces, Erdogan lacks an opponent to rally his supporter base against. Now, it appears he is turning the protesters into a foreign-backed threat to his rule and the prosperity of Turkey.
“The Gezi incident has become a golden opportunity for him,” said Uslu.
Erdogan’s key ambition is believed to be retaining power by amending Turkey’s constitution to empower the presidency, now considered a ceremonial position, and assume the presidency in 2014, when it will be decided for the first time by a popular vote.
Internal AKP rules prevent him from becoming prime minister again.
|A protester being arrested by police officers [AFP]|
Some have argued that the protests have put an end to Erdogan’s presidential ambitions.
Candar said, because of the demonstrations, the rewriting of the constitution was no longer possible in the short-term.
“After what we have passed through in the last two weeks… it is very unlikely that the other parties will compromise with Mr Erdogan if he wants to change the constitution,” he said, adding the country was too polarised for agreement.
“The equation we had before two weeks ago in Turkey does not exist any more. Changing the constitution is a matter of the past now.”
Yet, even if rewriting the constitution were to be postponed, it is still possible for Erdogan to be elected to the presidency in a popular vote, Candar said, adding the presidency was more than just a ceremonial position.
“It has executive power,” Candar said. “Particularly if you are elected by a popular vote, the weight it will carry is much more than a president elected by parliament.”
On the defensive
Turkey is experiencing an unchartered era, said Ziya Meral, a Turkish researcher and academic.
There are zero expectations that Erdogan will resign as the protesters want, say analysts. How long the AKP maintains an inward looking and polarising policies in another question.
“Now, they will be on the defensive [because they] lost the moral upper hand and wider support from liberals, observers and international voices,” Meral said.
Tense times appear to be on the horizon for Turkey as Erdogan seeks to gain the upper hand over the protesters, who are a vocal minority in the country.
But a worsening of economic conditions, along with a loss of international prestige, and the continuation of domestic instability are likely to make the prime minister eventually seek a compromise that ends the unrest.
“Seemingly Erdogan came out triumphant from this debacle,” Candar said. “[But] to me he is the great loser. At the end of the day with him, Turkey lost a lot in terms of international standing and image.”
Peace talks to end Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish conflict are also at risk, he said. Candar added he was disappointed rather than surprised by Erdogan’s performance.
“Given the country is on the crossroads of so many fault lines… an inward-looking Turkey is not sustainable.”
Despite the violence, Sozen said he was choosing to be optimistic over the long-term about democracy in Turkey.
“Maybe along the way there will be some ebbs and flows,” said Sozen. More police brutality could be expected in the coming days, he added.
“The net development is that Turkey is going towards a more full-fledged democracy – precisely because now people are demanding it.”
Follow Justin Vela on Twitter: @justinvela