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Turkey: protests die down, but splits are revealed

21 June 2013


Under cover: demonstrators stand in silence as part of an anti-government protest in Taksim Square, in Istanbul, on Tuesday

Under cover: demonstrators stand in silence as part of an anti-government protest in Taksim Square, in Istanbul, on Tuesday

TURKS are starting to assess the implications of the days of anti-government demonstrations in the centre of Istanbul and other cities that prompted a tough and largely uncompromising response from the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

While the opposition to the government has neither a leader nor the backing of a political party, the recent protests have revealed disturbing signs of polarisation within Turkish society, given that the Prime Minister himself still enjoys huge support.

Mr Erdogan hopes to push through constitutional changes to increase the power of the presidency, before putting himself forward as a presidential candidate next year. Dissatisfaction that many Turks feel about his leadership was one of the catalysts that transformed a small peaceful protest about plans to build over a park in Taksim Square, in Istanbul, into a mass outpouring of anger against the government.

Indeed, Mr Erdogan's verbal tirades against the demonstrators, coming on top of the sometimes excessive use of force by the police, exacerbated a protest that might otherwise have fizzled out. "His confrontational attitude, and his obvious contempt for the demonstrators made everything worse," said Ece Ali, an insurance agent, who voted for the ruling AK Party at the last election.

But the spontaneous demonstrations in and around Taksim Square also brought to the surface concern among secular Turks that Mr Erdogan was trying to extend the influence of Islam on daily life. In one of the latest moves, restrictions have been placed on the sale of alcohol and drinks advertising. Thousands of portraits of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular Turkish state, were displayed during the demonstrations, proving that a significant element in the population wants to preserve his ideals.

Where ultimately all this leaves Turkey is hard at present to say. "We have a zero-tolerance policy against anyone using violence," the Deputy Prime Minister, Ali Babacan, said on Tuesday, although he added that the government was prepared to listen to peaceful protesters. Yet Mr Babacan went on to repeat Mr Erdogan's frequent allegation that unnamed foreign elements, determined to undermine Turkey's stability and prosperity, had instigated the Taksim protests.

Again, this insistence that outside powers were to blame has compounded the crisis, and increased the polarisation within Turkey. "The government is always saying that someone pressed the button, without saying who," Ilter Turan, a professor at Bilgi University, in Istanbul, said. "We can't go on blaming outsiders all the time without asking if we might be doing something wrong ourselves."

For the time being at least, there is no sign that Mr Erdogan will soften his tone or his determination to take whatever measures are necessary to quell protests. Furthermore, he can point to the hundreds of thousands of Turks who attended pro-government rallies in Istanbul and Ankara over recent days. Few doubt that if snap elections were held, his AK Party would win convincingly, as they have in the last two polls.

"This is still a very patriarchal and conservative society, and millions of Turks see Erdogan as a father figure," a long-established political commentator in Istanbul, Nicole Pope, said. "Erdogan himself, I think, believes that if the people need disciplining, then he must deliver the punishment. His rhetoric is very effective."

Although the centre of Istanbul is now largely quiet again, at 9 p.m. each evening, the clatter of banging pots and pans fills many of the streets around Taksim, as thousands of Turks express their anger. The street protests may have been subdued, but the Prime Minister can no longer ignore the sections of society that disapprove of his style of leadership. The past few weeks have brought about a profound but indefinable change in Turkey.

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