Erdogan Tested in Taksim Square

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The ongoing protests in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul are perhaps the greatest domestic challenge to the image and authority of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since his Justice and Development (AK) Party first came to power a decade ago. Having won the last elections by a landslide, the Erdogan government has moved swiftly over the last year to push forward initiatives that have proven controversial with various segments of the society. However, protests against such measures have usually been isolated and not well-organized. For this reason, some have suggested that the protests this time around would have died out on their own had it not been for the government’s heavy handed response. That possibility has some observers in the region wondering whether Erdogan’s longevity in office has made him overly confident and more autocratic.

The protests initially sprung up as anger at the redevelopment of a nearby park. Supporters of the prime minister have blamed political opportunism by the opposition party CHP for fomenting further protest, despite the CHP’s support for the park redevelopment. According to the Turkish daily Sabah, “The Taksim Square Pedestrianization Project, which foresaw the removal of a number of over 50-year-old trees in Gezi Park was passed unanimously by members of the assembly, including CHP parliamentarians, on September 16, 2011. The project, which was approved by the No: 2 Preservation Board, was left pending for 30 days, during which not a single objection to the removal of trees was submitted. The Taksim Square Pedestrianization Project, which is part of an ongoing redevelopment project, was officially adopted as the 2111 parliamentary resolution during the September 16, 2011 session of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Assembly.”

According to another Sabah report, and subsequent declarations by the Erdogan himself, the deterioration of the situation was due to irresponsible statements made by ‘provocateurs’ and opposition politicians whose objective was to destabilize the current government: “Opposition and militant groups took to social media to show the situation in a much more terrifying light, by doing so causing disorder among the public. These groups due to their political differences with the democratically elected and majority holding AK Party attempted to and with some degree of success were able to cause disorder and further complicate the situations in Taksim and other large cities in Turkey, while claiming that the AK Party was a dictatorial force.”

However, for many the Taksim Square protests are evidence of an anxious electorate that no longer identifies with Erdogan’s policies. As Yedioth Ahronoth’s Dror Ze’evi argues: “Below the surface, several processes taking place in recent years have led to growing anger among many parts of the public. The most notable process is Erdogan’s clear pursuit of autocracy…. In the past year, the government has strongly cracked down on several such demonstrations: Students at a university in Ankara who dared protest against the government were beaten up and injured, peaceful civilian processions in honor of the republican holidays (marking the Republic of Atatürk) were curbed at their very beginning, and workers who gathered for the traditional May Day procession were dispersed violently with huge amounts of tear gas….The protests of the past few days will be suppressed, and calm may be restored in Istanbul, but the prime minister and his party suffered a blow this week which marks the end of their honeymoon with their voters.”

Pointing out that much of the unhappiness with the current government policies is due to Erdogan’s government longevity, the Peninsula’s editorial staff believes that in the absence of a credible opposition, longevity has made Erdogan overly confident in his ability to ride any domestic troubles: “The prime minister has been facing criticism for measures which have been seen as curbing freedom in the country, such as jailing of some journalists and a lack of dialogue with the public and the opposition on key issues and policy decisions. A long stint in power has made Erdogan too powerful and also insensitive to criticism. With the military silenced and the media losing some of its freedom, there is a feeling that the president is venturing outside the democratic territory.”

In its editorial, UAE’s The National also expresses the view that the Taksim Square protests are not simply about the clearing of dozens of trees from a public park: “While the spark was small, the kindling had been a decade in the making. Although not an excuse for violence, the protests appear to be an expression of frustration with the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and some of the policies of his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A combination of what Turks call ‘lifestyle intervention’ (the discussion about banning alcohol shops too close to schools and mosques), a peace process with the Kurdish minority that, while positive, has been opaque, and the blowback from Turkey’s vehement support for the uprising in Syria; all have come together. Yet the most salient issue for the protestors is simply the longevity of the AKP.”

With the protests now entering into their second week, the question now becomes what effect will they have on Erdogan’s image and his government’s ability to implement is agenda. Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin has no doubt that “the Taksim wave of protests has turned into the first public defeat of the almighty image of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and by Turkish people themselves….To call this a ‘Turkish Spring’ would be over-dramatizing it. It could be, if there were opposition forces in Turkey that could move in to stop the one man show of a mighty power holder. But it can easily be said that the Taksim brinkmanship marked a turning point in the almighty image of Erdogan.”

As a result, many believe that if anyone is to blame for the violence on Taksim Square, Erdogan would be it: “His determination and the disproportionate toughness of the police has managed to turn a pacifist and modest protest into a public protest movement. And the protestors did neither favor Tiananmen, nor Red Square as an example for their act as it is about to complete its first week now. They like to be likened to the Occupy Wall Street protestors — that is why they like to be called ‘Occupy Taksim’ now.”

No wonder than that in an op-ed on the Turkish daily Zaman, Ömer Taspinar pushes back against accusations made by the Prime Minister’s supporters against the protesters and opposition party politicians: “Given the growing perception that human rights are deteriorating in Turkey, it is time for supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to examine such accusations without dismissing them as malicious propaganda. The perception is growing that the old type of military or Kemalist authoritarianism is being replaced by a more civilian type of repressiveness. Is one type of authoritarianism really replacing another? … At the heart of the issue, the problem is the absence of a liberal mindset in Turkey…. In the absence of liberal institutions and a liberal mindset it is very hard to address the structural deficiencies of Turkish democracy.”

For Gokhan Bacik, Taspinar’s critique of Turkey’s liberal institutional deficit goes to the heart of another problem that has become evident over the last few days: “The major problem of Turkish politics is the absence of a social contract. Since its creation, the Turkish Republic has been without an inclusive social contract. Some groups have always been excluded. Turkish politics has been a game played by hegemonic groups only. The recent Istanbul protests are fresh signs of Turkey’s acute need for a new, real, all-inclusive social contract.”

To the degree that much of the unhappiness with the state of affairs in Turkey is due to an ‘all inclusive social contract,’ the protests, according to Sabine Freizer, are an important step forward in reclaiming politics and perhaps starting the project of drafting such a contract: “The Istanbul protests demonstrated what people can accomplish when they join together, across religious, economic and ideological lines. But they also show the limitations of street action in a democracy based on the rule of law. The next battle should happen in Parliament and at the polls.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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