On a Knife Edge

Turkey's head of government is finding himself under more and more pressure: Protest against his policies and billion-dollar development projects continue, with sustained criticism even being levelled against him from within his own camp. But the "Sultan of Ankara" is allowing the situation to escalate, as Jürgen Gottschlich reports

By Jürgen Gottschlich

After 11 uninterrupted years at the helm of government, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his partym, the AKP, have suffered their first major political drubbing over the past six days. But this is not a blow that has been dealt by the opposition.

Although Erdogan has repeatedly attempted – in a series of increasingly surreal public appearances in recent days – to invoke the spectre of an enemy conspiracy involving the old Kemalists and foreign forces, this message is now falling on deaf ears. Anyone involved in the protests in Istanbul and many other cities in Turkey knows that this is complete nonsense.

For the first time in Turkey this was no longer about the decades-old conflict between authoritarian Kemalists and the Islamists, it was and is about a burgeoning civil society that demands personal freedom and genuine, participatory democracy.

Commerce v. nature

It is no coincidence that this conflict was triggered in the past week by a construction project with no apparent associations with religion or Kemalism.

United against Erdogan's dubious construction project: The AKP-dominated municipal authority plans to resurrect an 18th century barracks on the Gezi Park site. The new building will house cafés, museums and a shopping mall. Demonstrators say the project robs Istanbul of one of its last remaining green lungs

​​The focus of public anger has been the last park in concrete-clad Istanbul, where Erdogan by virtue of his absolute power plans to resurrect an historic barracks which will then accommodate a shopping mall – in doing so positioning commerce against nature in a city where it might soon be difficult to breathe if Erdogan realises all his mega-projects and the government does not deem it necessary to discuss its projects with the city's residents.

When the harsh police response to the protest drove increasing numbers of people to join the rally occupying the park, other motives were brought to light. Essentially, this is about the freedom of the individual, the freedom to express an opinion and the freedom to make one's own life choices.

The people are tired of Erdogan dictating to them how many children they should have (at least three), how moral behaviour in public is defined and above all, immediately condemning anyone drinking a beer as an alcoholic. It is essentially about respect, a respect that Erdogan appears to be increasingly lacking.

The stealthy Islamisation of the country has for the first time provoked a clear reaction to the spontaneous protests of recent days. After all, one thing is at least correct. Conservative supporters of the AKP may be irritated, but few are participating in the protests.

This is a spontaneous rebellion by the secular bourgeoisie, initially in Istanbul and other large cities in Turkey, but also increasingly in the provinces. There were protests in a total of 67 Turkish towns and cities last weekend.

Adding fuel to the fire

Erdogan's comments have only served to fan the flames. He describes the demonstrators as a mob, or at best angry misguided citizens.

Uprising against Erdogan's authoritarian stance: "For the first time in Turkey this was no longer about the decades-old conflict between authoritarian Kemalists and the Islamists, it was and is about a burgeoning civil society that demands personal freedom and genuine, participatory democracy," writes Gottschlich

​​While President Abdullah Gül and the Mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, are trying to pacify the situation, Erdogan continues to add fuel to the fire – whether as a result of his sustained loss of grip on reality or as a targeted strategy – Erdogan is refusing to accept any criticism.

While Topbas again questioned the construction of the barracks and the mall and expressed a desire to debate the issue with critics of the plan, Erdogan announced that there was nothing to discuss and that his voters had given their blessing to the project a long time ago.

A court calling for a temporary halt to construction of the Gezi Park after an application from the Chamber of Architects, thereby prohibiting the felling of any more trees, was told by Erdogan that it clearly had no idea where its authority lay.

Even journalists writing for newspapers sympathetic to Erdogan and the AKP now view the Prime Minister's unilateralism as dangerous. "Zaman" commentator Yavuz Baydar wonders whether Erdogan will succeed in again revising his authoritarian "I-know-best-and-I-will-decide-everything-alone-stance" and regain a democratic style of governance.

On confrontation course

"I'm not very optimistic," Baydar admits, at the same time issuing a warning to the AKP. If Erdogan persists with this approach, his party could lose municipal elections in Istanbul and Ankara due to take place early next year, his own presidential chances could be affected and even the prospect of a reconciliation with the Kurds could again be called into question.

During his last media conference on Monday (3 June), before his departure on a state visit to Morocco, Erdogan again indicated in what direction protests could develop over the following days: "We're having trouble keeping our supporters – that's 50 percent of the population – in their homes," he told the journalists present. What he meant was that it would be easy for him to mobilize his own people against the "mob" that has been demonstrating against him in recent days.

Erdogan, who has for a long time only been surrounded by a political posse of yes-men, now evidently wants to allow things to escalate into a major confrontation. Even plummeting market rates, which usually sound alarm bells with the Turkish Prime Minister, are this time leaving him cold: "The stock market is always fluctuating, we've already experienced that!" he said.

Jürgen Gottschlich

© Qantara.de 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de