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A riot police officer fires tear gas at protesters during a demonstration in Ankara June 3, 2013. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused anti-government protesters on Monday of walking "arm-in-arm with terrorism", remarks that could further inflame public anger after three days of some of the most violent riots in decades. Hundreds of police and protesters have been injured since Friday in the riots, which began with a demonstration to halt construction in a park in an Istanbul square and grew into mass protests against what opponents call Erdogan's authoritarianism. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Image: Reuters

Stubborn leadership

Baha Güngör / mll
June 3, 2013

Despite criticism from at home and abroad, the Turkish government shows little sign of caving to the demands of protesters around the country. Observers fear an escalation of the clashes between police and demonstrators.


Since Saturday (01.06.2013), Turkey has been seeing a wave of demonstrations against the country's moderate Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which are more serious than anything in its recent history. The crowds of demonstrators in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities in Anatolia have been met with a response from the police that has been brutal at times. Nearly 2,500 people have been injured in 60 cities, and around 2,000 have been arrested.

In spite of the tense situation, Erdogan started a planned tour of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria on Monday.

The wave of demonstrations began with a protest by environmental activists against a major construction project in Taksim Square, which would have seen the demolition of a small park. Following the excessive response by the police, the protests developed into demonstrations involving all classes of society. Erdogan's intransigence and his view that the protests were led by "marginal groups" have already generated comparisons with the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Arab despots.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his deputies Bulent Arinc (L) and Bekir Bozdag (R), speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul June 3, 2013. Erdogan called for calm on Monday, after a weekend of fierce anti-government protests, urging people not to be provoked by demonstrations he said had been organised by
Erdogan called for calm just before he left for MoroccoImage: Reuters

Still a democracy

Günter Seufert, a Turkey expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), finds the comparison inappropriate. "Unlike the despots who were overthrown, Erdogan is a democratically elected head of government," he points out. Turkey does not have a totalitarian regime, and there are plenty of democratic processes that work effectively.

The Turkish columnist and analyst Cengiz Candar says he's observed a certain "exhaustion" on Erdogan's part after ten years in power: "He tries to camouflage this exhaustion with vanity, arrogance and, if need be, with the cruelty of teargas and water cannon. But I don't think that the people will vote him in as president next year, or that they're ready to put up with him for two whole terms of office as head of state."

It's not likely that Erdogan will apologize for his actions, as the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu demanded on Monday after a meeting with the current president, Abdullah Gül.

Seufert thinks that Erdogan's religious-conservative government ought to see the demonstrations as a clear signal: "His chances of winning an absolute majority again in next year's elections have certainly gone down."

Opposition disunited

But there is no homogenous opposition to Erdogan right now. There is an opposition front, made up of members of the social democratic Republican People's Party (CHP), as well as Kemalists who want to return to the secular principles of the founder of the Turkish republic, nationalists, Kurds, Alevis who want to be accepted by the majority Sunnis as a religious minority, and marginal religious groups like the Anti-capitalist Muslims. But nobody is talking about how they'll respond concretely if Erdogan steps down.

An anti-government protester gestures during a demonstration in Ankara late June 2, 2013. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Turkey's four biggest cities on Sunday and clashed with riot police firing tear gas in the third day of the fiercest anti-government protests in years. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan blamed the main secular opposition party for inciting the crowds, whom he called
Protests are becoming more extreme as Erdogan remains unmovedImage: Reuters

The prime minister has faced criticism for what he himself has called "crazy projects" - including a third airport for Istanbul, a canal to relieve the Bosporus straits and mammoth mosques in central squares and on top of hills. One project, however, stands out in particular: a third Bosporus bridge. Construction has already begun, and the bridge is to be named after the Ottoman ruler Yavuz Sultan Selim. His rule from 1470 to 1520 was marked by the persecution and massacre of Alevis, and the proposal to name the bridge after him has drawn heavy opposition.

Here, too, Erdogan has not been prepared to consider any other solution, saying, "We won't let ourselves be dictated to over the naming of an important project by a couple of plunderers."

Turkey's neighbor Syria, where Erdogan is supporting the opposition in its uprising against the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad, has issued a travel warning for Turkey. In a statement read out on Syrian state television, the government said that the security situation in Turkey has worsened "as a result of the Erdogan government's violent treatment of peaceful demonstrators."

According to the United Nations, some 380,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey from the violence in Syria.

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