Erdogan’s Last Act? Gezi Park Protests May Oust Turkish Prime Minister
|June 6, 2013||Posted by Attila Gokbudak under Featured, News|
A small park sit-in in Istanbul ignited protests against the government all over the nation of Turkey, in spite of excessive use of force by riot police. Turkish-American writer Attila Gokbudak speculates on Turkey’s future and the fate of its Prime Minister.
Last week at Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s last remaining public open spaces, a group of environmentalists began a small peaceful protest. They objected to Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to construct a shopping mall on the park grounds. Within 72 hours, protests had spread throughout Turkey, including such conservative “red-state” provinces like Eskisehir, Denizli and Konya in central Turkey, and even Samsun, a large city in the eastern Black Sea region.
Why did controversy over a park in central Istanbul spark riots throughout Turkey? It’s insufficient to point to Gezi Park’s cultural or historical significance, nor does the explanation lie exclusively in opposition to destruction of open spaces in the city.
A small protest in a park in Istanbul has turned into a wider expression of discontent against the Turkish government. The people are rebelling against the repressive policies of Prime Minister Erdogan and his right-wing Islamist AK-Party.
Initially, Erdogan conned both the Turkish people and Westerners into thinking he was the leader who would bridge the cultural gap as a “new kind” of Islamic leader upon his election. Instead, he validated underlying fears that he would impose conservative Islamist policies, moving Turkey away from its roots as a secular nation. For example, Erdogan restricted alcohol use after 10:00 p.m., and he has worked to restrict and outlaw abortion.
Opposition took the form of massive demonstrations prior to his election in 2002, including a gathering of 300,000 in Ankara, the Turkish capital. In 2007 Erdogan won re-election, mainly because virtually all secular center-right parties collapsed. Still, national sentiment against him continued to rise.
In suppressing prior protests, Erdogan never wielded the brutal use of force to the extent we have seen in Gezi Park and elsewhere in Turkey recently. Police took excessive measures in confronting protestors over the weekend, including use of tear gas and water cannons. In total, there were almost 2,000 arrests and injuries as well as an undisclosed number of casualties. In the three days of major protests beginning on Friday, May 31, the BBC has confirmed two deaths, both of men in their twenties: one in Istanbul, the other in Antakya (Antioch).
As the greatest period of civil unrest since the infamous 1980 military coup unfolded, most of the Turkish public were unable to see or hear about it. The government censored many Turkish news media outlets, including CNN Turk, Star TV and NTV. On Saturday, the second and most active day of nationwide protests, CNN Turk showed nature documentaries–including one about penguins–instead of news about the unrest.
The government also blocked Twitter and Facebook feeds into Turkey. Erdogan said that Twitter was “evil” because its users in Turkey were supposedly spreading misinformation around the world.
In the midst of crushing the protests, Erdogan attempted a political maneuver. The leader of the liberal CHP (People’s Republic Party) in the Turkish Parliament, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, visited the protestors in Gezi Park. Erdogan accused Kiliçdaroglu of taking political advantage of the situation and then shockingly characterized the protests as a prearranged plot by the CHP.
Erdogan steadfastly refuses to unite the country. He openly says that he will work hard for the “50-percent” of Turkish citizens who support him. Even many right-wing leaders who initially supported him are expressing opposition in a surprisingly candid manner.
In an apologist speech on Sunday, Erdogan defensively said, “I am not a dictator.” Despite deteriorating civil order, he left on a scheduled international affairs trip to Morocco the next day.
Turkey’s future is now up in the air. Some express concerns that an Erdogan resignation could create a political vacuum. But Turkey is not like Iran, Egypt or Syria. It has been a democracy and a secular state since it remade itself from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire ninety years ago.
Further political turmoil could help far-right Turkish nationalist leader Devlet Bahçeli gain more power. Ironically, even his supporters came out to protest Erdogan over the weekend. But the CHP holds twice as many seats in Parliament than Bahçeli’s far-right MHP (Nationalist People’s Party).
Another possibility is that members of dissolved or politically-weakened center-right secular parties will unite with the CHP, a move which would shift Kilicdaroglu’s party to the center but allow him to become Turkey’s new prime minister.
One thing is beyond conjecture: the Turkish people are tired of Erdogan. He will return from North Africa to a country more universally aligned against him than any other sitting prime minister in modern times. Like a Shakespearean villain or a doomed king, Erdogan will have to figure out how he is going to survive the third act.