After his landslide re-election in 2007, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to govern on behalf of all Turks, not just those who voted for him. Underlying the past week’s unrest is a belief among some Turks that he hasn’t kept that promise.
Asked why they’re joining the crowds that have gathered in Istanbul and Ankara every day since May 31, many cite what they say is a threat to their freedoms from an Islamist-rooted government increasingly unwilling to countenance dissent. Erdogan, who has blamed “extremists” for the spread of protests, has introduced curbs on alcohol, objected to popular television programs and said he hopes to preside over a “pious generation” of young people.
“The government is trying to impose restrictions on my social life, it is trying to annihilate me,” said Hakan Badik, a 21-year-old musician, in the morning of June 2 as he gazed around Taksim Square in the center of Istanbul where the protests began, now blocked to traffic by barricades the protesters erected. “I don’t feel myself safe or free outside this area.”
Erdogan has won successive elections, with a growing share of the vote, by campaigning as a leader who has expanded freedoms in Turkey, as well as delivering economic growth. He points to majority support for an easing of restrictions on Islamic practices, such as wearing the headscarf, that were imposed by past governments, often under the tutelage of a secular army whose powers have also been clipped.
Without opposing the relaxation of curbs on religion, some protesters say it has translated into a restriction of their own freedoms.
Gizem Oray, 21, was among a crowd of students dodging tear gas and water cannons fired by police in Ankara on June 3. She described how two weeks earlier, a roommate and her boyfriend were attacked by a group of men wearing Islamic dress for holding hands on the street.
“These guys would never have dared to do this, in the heart of the capital, a few years ago,” she said. “This government is responsible, there’s no other explanation.”
The wave of protests against Erdogan and his government began when police used tear gas and water cannons to clear a small group of demonstrators out of a park near Taksim, where they were opposing redevelopment plans. It has spread to more than 60 cities, leaving hundreds of police and protesters injured. Clashes continued overnight, including in the southeastern provinces of Tunceli and Elazig, after a fifth day of protests yesterday.
At least two people have died at rallies, one hit by a car in Istanbul. The circumstances of the other death, in Hatay province near the Syrian border, are under investigation, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said yesterday.
In the western city of Izmir, a stronghold of the secular opposition, police have been ordered to arrest 38 people for spreading false information about the protests, and 25 have already been detained, the state-run Anatolia news agency said. Erdogan had earlier blamed posts on Twitter for fueling the unrest.
Speaking from an Ankara balcony on election night in July 2007, Erdogan said he would govern on behalf of those who voted against him, too, because “their concerns are our concerns. We see different choices as an extension of democracy.”
Arinc, seeking to calm the protests, echoed that language. He apologized to the victims of excessive police violence at the start of the unrest, and said the government respects different lifestyles and is open to demands from all sides when they’re expressed peacefully.
Arinc, though, also warned that the administration won’t “bow to pressure from the streets,” and said the protests have been manipulated by illegal groups, and are hurting Turkey’s economy. Growth has averaged more than 5 percent a year since 2003, when Erdogan took office.
As he watched the fighting between police and students in Ankara, taxi driver Edip Cansev praised Erdogan’s record and worried about how the protests against him would affect business.
“Thank God for this government, they’ve increased people’s purchasing power,” he said. “What do these people want, they’ve torn up the sidewalk,” he said, pointing to an area stripped by protesters seeking missiles to hurl at police. “Now, no one is going out unless they have to, especially at night.”
To some extent Erdogan may be a victim of his own success, targeted by protesters too young to remember a time before him when Turkey was poorer and less stable, said James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist in southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics.
“It’s a transformed country,” he said. “Obviously parts of society have been left out of this, or feel that they’ve been left out. Then there’s a young population, and in Turkey that’s an important factor, that just isn’t aware of this. Most people who remember the really bad old days are now about 30, at a minimum.”
Several protesters complained about economic conditions. Fatma Hatice Kerkecin, an unemployed decorator, said Turks are “indebted up to their necks” and Seda Terkoglu, a 19-year-old high-school student, said “constant price hikes are choking us.”
Under Erdogan, though, inflation has come down, averaging about 8 percent in the past five years, compared with more than 70 percent in the 10 years through 2002. So have interest rates, enabling Turks to buy cars or homes that were out of reach when bank rates exceeded 100 percent, as they sometimes did in the decade before Erdogan.
Instead of a widening economic horizon, many young protesters see their options narrowed by what they say are religiously motivated rules.
Erdogan’s government has increased the amount of time allotted in the curriculum to religious lessons. He has also called for curbs on television shows that show characters drinking alcohol or having affairs, and sued over satirical depictions of him in magazines popular among Turkey’s youth.
“I’m here because Erdogan wants to raise a pious generation,” said Ozkan Korkmaz, a 19-year-old high-school student, in an interview in Taksim, showing the scar on his back where he was hit by a gas canister fired by police. “They’re imposing non-scientific education on us,” he said. “They’re limiting our freedoms, opening lawsuits against satirical magazines and cartoonists.”
As well as the content of government decisions, protesters say they object to Erdogan’s style. An online survey by Istanbul’s Bilgi University that drew 3,000 responses found that 92 percent, the largest proportion, said Erdogan’s “authoritarian” attitude was a reason for the protests, with 91% also citing police violence and violations of democratic rights.
When the Taksim park protests began, Erdogan said they would have no effect on the development project. The government has since backtracked after a court order halting construction, and now says that plans for the area haven’t been finalized yet.
“A prime minister can’t just say, we made a decision and we will implement it,” said musician Badik. “He can’t do it if we don’t want it.”
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