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On Sunday June 16, at a rally in Istanbul named ‘The National Will’, Erodgan was frank with his enthused supporters.
Speaking to thousands – many of whom wore Erdogan masks – he described the protests in Gezi Park as “nothing more than the minority’s attempt to dominate the majority”.
“We could not have allowed this and we will not allow it,” he said.
What started as an environmental protest on May 27 to protect sycamore trees in a park off Taksim Square in central Istanbul, evolved into some of the worst countrywide unrest in recent years, leaving three dead and thousands injured.
Within a matter of days, anti-government protesters set up barricades around Taksim Square after police tear-gassed the environmentalists in their tents while they were sleeping.
The crisis has strangely united old foes while creating new divisions, but most importantly it has exposed – to all who were unclear – the Turkish prime minister’s interpretation of democracy and his preferred style of governance.
Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University believes Erdogan has revealed that his main criteria for democratic legitimacy is the ballot box.
“He doesn’t respect the challenge of a social movement as a democratic expression of discontent. That’s what guided his behavior from the beginning,” Ozel says.
Erodgan traveled to North Africa just three days after the crisis began. As soon as he left the country, his deputy Bulent Arinc apologized to the park protesters for the disproportionate use of force and promised a full investigation into Istanbul’s policing; this was backed by the president Abdullah Gul.
The two seasoned politicians were working to cool things down, and it worked – an air of calm prevailed until Erdogan returned four days later to hundreds of cheering supporters at the airport chanting ‘crush Taksim’.
“He has become like a man who wants to show his power without listening to the messages even from the deputies of his party,” says Evren Ergeç, Head of Global Affairs at Community Volunteers Foundation, a prominent NGO working with Turkish youth.
“He cannot handle the crisis as he is the one who created the crisis,” Ergec added.
To many, Erdogan’s handling of the park protests has damaged his political capital domestically; he may be punished by voters in elections next year.
But Erodgan regularly defends his politics by pledging to be the leader of ‘all Turkey’. Given the unrest this past weekend, two weeks on from the original incident that sparked the anti-government protests, his actions could be interpreted as meaning that he is not particularly interested in ‘the other’ part of the Turkish electorate, which could seal his fate at the ballot box.
Police using teargas and water cannon took back Taksim Square on June 11. It was ugly, but it backfired.
But by using force to quell dissenting voices, the prime minister had somehow managed two weeks after the first protest to push thousands back into the park where it all started.
A late night meeting followed two days later between the Taksim Solidarity Group and the prime minister, and the protesters felt they finally had his ear when he offered to let the people decide the park’s future in a public referendum.
But 48 hours on, at a rally in Ankara, Erodgan told protesters to evacuate the park or his police would do it for them. The full force of teargas and water cannon was again used.
Fanatics on both sides?Mustafa Akyol, author of the book Islam Without Extremes says there is fanaticism on both sides of the tensions.
“But the person who bares most responsibility is Erdogan. He took a few positive steps last week by announcing a referendum. But he should have kept calm and let people talk about it and let people stay in the park,” Akyol says.
The display of state power that followed was tragic for Turkish democracy, analysts say, and social media appears to be documenting this setback.
Twitter was awash with images and video of police entering luxury hotels and physically removing gas masks from civilians who had sought refuge from the teargas.
Even hospitals did not escape the mayhem, a video showed the entrance to the E&A at the German hospital in Taksim being water cannoned.
‘He [Erdogan] will go on with what he’s doing. I was in the park on Saturday. It was peaceful. Children were painting. Some groups were even starting to take down their tents. But then Erdogan issued the warning and within an hour the place was a war zone.’ Irem Koker, a reporter from Hurriyet Daily described the scene.
Thousands walked from the Asian side of the city across the Bosphorus Bridge on June 15 but were blocked by police. Istanbul became a running battleground. Military police were deployed to support riot police and Taksim residents spent much of the next 24 hours being gassed in their own homes.
“Ultimately, what Turkey needs is to defuse the tension and nobody can do this other than Erdogan. He doesn’t do it enough. He tried a few steps. The way he has handled it was a political mistake,” Akyol told The BRICS Post.
However, Erdogan is still a popular leader with the ability to rally tens of thousands to hear him speak on Sunday in a suburb of Istanbul while Taksim was under clouds of teargas. This is perhaps in part because he is the first Islamist politician that has been able to command a one party majority in parliament and secure a tactical victory over Turkey’s long-time keepers of the secular state, the military.
Jason Nash, who has spent many years in Turkey and is currently editor-in-chief of The Business Year believes Erdogan handled the crisis by reaching out to his natural electorate
“[Erdogan] put them in confrontation with the reality of what was happening in the streets. It was the classic “secular vs us” battle he has been fighting for years, evoking the shadows of the military past,” Nash says.
On June 16, while the anti-government protesters picked up stones in retaliation against the police’s endless clouds of teargas, a Youtube video surfaced showing Erdogan’s supporters chanting his name and carrying sticks not far from Taksim, which has left the park protesters feeling vulnerable.
Didem, a PhD student, who has been part of the environmental protest since the beginning, told The BRICS Post that theirs was a “leaderless movement”.
“We area a collection of different voices coming together for one cause, surely the prime minister should have known what was happening in the park. How could he be so out of touch?’
Despite the backing he enjoys from his supporters, the only way forward for Erdogan is to become Turkey’s next president in the first ever direct vote, expected in the next two years; the constitution prohibits him from running for prime minister in 2015.
But if his recent behavior is anything to go by, a presidential run could spell disaster for Turkey, some fear.
The world and the region look to Turkey as a model in which political Islam and a Western-style democracy is synthesized.
“His attempts to become the president would be another point of conflict, and would risk destablising the country again,” Nash says.
“If more sober minds cannot make him understand the risky nature of his position, Turkey will be plunged once again into the ‘culture wars’,” Nash says.
By Jody Sabral in Istanbul, Turkey for The BRICS Post