Turkey may consider referendum on park plan

Demonstrators gather peacefully in Istanbul’s Taksim Square after Erdogan meets figures linked to Gezi Park protests.

Just hours after the Turkish government indicated that it was open to holding a referendum on a controversial Istanbul development plan, demonstrators defied an order to end almost two weeks of protests by singing and chanting in the city’s Taksim Square.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, said on Wednesday he would consider holding a referendum on plans to redevelop Gezi Park that have led to nationwide protests, in his first major concession.

On Thursday, in an address to the ruling AK Party mayors in the capital Ankara, Erdogan issued a final warning to protesters. He said authorities would get rid of “troublemakers” in Taksim Square.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament (EP) has criticised the Turkish government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for police crackdown on protests.

However, the legislative body of the European Union (EU) praised President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc for their meetings with the opposition and dialogue with Taksim Solidarity Platform, an umbrella group of protesters.

On Thursday, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, termed the EP’s statement on Turkey’s handling of the protests as “unacceptable”.

Prior to the EP motion, PM Erdogan said that he personally would not recognise any decision taken by the European legislative body. 

Gezi Park is a leafy corner of Taksim Square where the protesters have set up a makeshift settlement of tents.

The mood in the public square on Wednesday night was subdued and peaceful, in stark contrast to the previous night when protesters fought running battles with riot police.

Riot police looked on from the fringes as crowds mingled late into Wednesday night, some protesters chanting and dancing, others applauding a concert pianist who took up residence with a grand piano in the middle of the square.

Demonstrators gathered around the live piano concert intermittently chanted: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!”

It was a stark contrast to the scene 24 hours earlier, when tear gas sent thousands scurrying into side streets before authorities bulldozed barricades and reopened the square to traffic for the first time since the troubles began.

Meanwhile, protesters demonstrating in the capital Ankara were once again subjected to a police crackdown, with riot police firing tear gas overnight to disperse up to 2,000 people who were clustered in Tunali Street, one of the central spots for mass anti-government rallies.

Earlier on Wednesday, thousands of lawyers took to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara in protest at the brief detention of over 70 colleagues the previous day after they objected to the police violently reclaiming Taksim Square.

Park concession

The offer to hold a referendum on the Gezi Park redevelopment is one of the only concessions the authorities have publicly floated after days of firm rhetoric from Erdogan.

The deputy chairman of the ruling AK Party, Huseyin Celik, said on Wednesday the protesters should withdraw from the park.

“The government can’t accept these protests going on forever,” he said in Ankara following a meeting between Erdogan and a group of public figures linked to the Gezi Park protesters.

“Those with bad intentions or who seek to provoke and remain in the park will [now] be facing the police.”

The representatives, a loose coalition of environmental campaigners, did not comment on the referendum proposal after the talks.

Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group for the demonstrators, said the delegation that met Erdogan was not representative and the meeting little more than symbolic.

“Had Solidarity spoken with anyone in this group to share information, the meeting with the prime minister would have meaning. Now it doesn’t,” Bulent Muftuoglu, a leading Solidarity figure and an official of Turkey’s Greens Party, said.

Celik, the AK Party official, gave few details of how a referendum would be carried out, saying it could either be held across Istanbul or just in the district near Taksim.

Protesters also want the government to punish those responsible for the violent police crackdown.

A police operation in Gezi Park nearly two weeks ago led to a wave of protest against the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party, drawing in a broad alliance of secularists, nationalists, professionals, unionists and students.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon day after day in cities including Ankara last week. Three people, one a policeman, died and about 5,000 people were injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

Erdogan has accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of stirring conflict and trying to undermine the economy of the only largely Muslim NATO state.

Journalists detained

In other unrest-related developments, two foreign correspondents from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) were briefly detained by police on Wednesday.

They were detained by Turkish police and later released, the two reporters said in messages on the social media site Twitter.

Police have fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters day after day in cities including Ankara on Wednesday [Reuters]

Separately, Turkey’s broadcasting authority said it was fining four television channels over their coverage of the protests on the grounds of inciting violence, media reports said.

Erdogan argues that the broader mass of people have been manipulated by extremists and terrorists and says his political authority derives from his popular mandate in three successive election victories.

President Abdullah Gul, who has struck a more conciliatory tone than Erdogan, said it was the duty of government to engage with critics, but also appeared to close ranks with the prime minister, saying violent protests were a different matter.

“If people have objections … then to engage in a dialogue with these people, to hear out what they say, is no doubt our duty,” Gul said.

“Those who employ violence are something different and we have to distinguish them … This would not be allowed in New York, this would not be allowed in Berlin.”

The US has expressed concern about events and urged dialogue between government and protesters.

The European Union has also called on Erdogan’s government to investigate cases of excessive force.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies