IT may not be a “Turkish Spring” but the people of Turkey have sent out a strong message to the AK (Justice and Development) Party government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan that it cannot go on ruling in the usual way. The spark for the countrywide protests was provided by the ambitious redevelopment plan for Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul. The sending of bulldozers to clear one of the last forested areas in the city, located near the iconic Taksim Square, and the efforts of a small environmentalist group to prevent its destruction, led to a spontaneous eruption of public fury. The protests that started in the beginning of June soon spread to most of the cities and towns. Only the towns located in the Anatolian heartland, the AK Party’s main support base, remained calm.
It was the worst case of civil unrest the country had witnessed in recent decades. The timing of the demonstrations, which until the first week of June has shown no signs of abating, is bad news for Erdogan. The country is due to go to the polls next year and the Prime Minister was looking for another decisive mandate for his party. The Prime Minister wants to change the country’s Constitution to convert the political system into a presidential one. It is no secret that Erdogan himself wants to be the country’s next President.
Erdogan has been in power for the last 10 years and the recent events revealed an anti-incumbency mood in the country. Many Turks are angry with the creeping Islamisation of society and Erdogon’s authoritarian style. The Turkish economy, too, has slowed down considerably.
In the last elections, the AK Party got around 50 per cent of the votes. In fact, Erdogan, in a speech delivered on June 3, reminded the protesters about this and said that it was getting difficult for him “to contain” his legion of supporters from staging counter-protests. Erdogan also described the protesters as “bums” manipulated by “extremist groups”. Not surprisingly, his comments inflamed passions on the street, giving a new lease of life to the protest movement.
In an attempt to mollify the protesters, President Abdullah Gul said the government had received the message being sent by the demonstrators “with good intentions”. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc also apologised to the demonstrators for the excessive use of force. Two people died and more than a thousand demonstrators are in hospital with injuries. The security forces used helicopters and armoured cars to teargas and pepper-spray the demonstrators.