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Commentary: In Turkey, Tear Gas Instead Of Dialogue

  • Abbas Djavadi

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center), accompanied by deputies Bulent Arinc (left) and Bekir Bozdag, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on June 3.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center), accompanied by deputies Bulent Arinc (left) and Bekir Bozdag, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on June 3.

It started all too typically, with a rather minor event. Last week, a few thousand people protested against plans to allow construction of a shopping mall in a park on Istanbul's central Taksim Square. An unexpectedly harsh crackdown by police armed with tear gas provoked tens of thousands more to pour into the area. Soon the protests spread to other districts of Istanbul and on to the major cities of Ankara and Izmir.

By the second and third days of unrest, the protests began to focus more on the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and less on the plans to raze the park. The protests, though largely limited to Turkey's three largest cities, seemed to have united young and old, secular and conservative-religious, and rich and poor.

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Right after the first crackdown, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party's leading figures -- such as Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas -- were conciliatory and apologetic. "Protesting is the people's right," said Arinc. "We should have convinced the people instead of using tear gas."

But his boss, Erdogan, took the tough approach, as he increasingly has during his decade-long tenure. He called the protesters a "bunch of hooligans" being used by the opposition. "We won't yield to a few looters coming to that square and provoking our people," Erdogan said.

Many people, including leading political scientists in Turkey, have noted that Erdogan's personal style has grown alarmingly authoritarian since the AK party came to power in 2003. Comfortably ruling with a majority of 40- to 50-plus percent of the nation's votes -- an exception to crisis-driven governments of recent decades -- the AK party has undertaken economic and political reforms that no other party has been able to pull off. Turkey is now the 16th-largest economy in the world, boasting high single-digit growth that might be envied in many developed countries.

WHAT'S REALLY Fueling The Turkish Protests?

Amid the outpouring of comments from Turks found on social networks and mass media in recent days, not many expressed concern about the economy. "Thank you for the flourishing economy, Sir!" read a tweet addressing Erdogan from an angry protester in Ankara. "But we have enough of your strong-arm way of treating people like slaves." And one very short commentary by Gulse Birsel, one of Turkey's most prominent writers and artists, quickly went viral. She summarized the feeling of the protesters in one striking title: "Ohhhh! Enough is enough!"

In the last 10 years, the AK party and Erdogan -- overconfident of the success of their political and economic reforms, as well as the rising share of national votes that has let them rule without any need to be in coalition with other parties -- have generally ignored concerns and criticisms of their policies towards the military, the new constitution, and Ankara's foreign policy toward Syria.

Many political scientists, such as Martin Lipset and Giovani Sartori, note that the longer a government rules the more its rulers tend to use its powers in an authoritarian way. Incidentally, Kemal Dervis, a former Turkish economy minister and ex-director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in a recent interview with CNN Turk, warned the government that too much self-confidence and disregard for public opinion and criticism could provoke a dangerous political crisis even in good economic times.

It seems that Turkish developments over the next weeks and months will depend largely on Erdogan's decision to be cohesive or not. He might listen to those who are critical of him and his government's policies. Or he might simply continue following a confrontational policy, as he did in the first days of the recent unrest by referring to protesters as "extremist elements."

On the fourth day of demonstrations Kadir Gursel, a prominent commentator, wrote in the "Milliyet" daily: "Nobody should misunderstand occasional calls in the demonstration for the government to resign. It's about discontent and protest, not about overthrowing a government that has received 50 percent of the popular vote. In the next few days we will see if the message has been received."

Meanwhile, the conservative "Zaman" daily quoted President Abdullah Gul -- also from the ruling AK party but rumored to be a more cohesive personality than the prime minister -- calling for calm and saying "the messages of goodwill have been received."

The author is an RFE/RL regional director