Ahmet Guler, who says he cut Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hair for 20 years in the hardscrabble Istanbul neighborhood they both hail from, has some barberly advice for the prime minister: cool off.
“If he came here for a shave today, my advice would be to be more careful about what he says,” Guler, 54, said in an interview on June 7, as protesters massed in Ankara and Istanbul to call for Erdogan’s resignation. “He has sudden outbursts, he sometimes tells things like they are, without screening them first,” Guler said. “There’s no sense in scaling it up further.”
The sentiment was echoed in several interviews in Ankara and the Istanbul district of Kasimpasa where Erdogan grew up, which is known for men with a swagger and fighting spirit. Erdogan, 59, has shown that in abundance as he faces the biggest public backlash against his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, since it came to power more than 10 years ago. His response hasn’t reversed a slide on Turkish stock and bond markets.
Today, riot police reentered Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the center of the unrest, using tear gas and water cannons against protesters. Many hurled bricks at the police and let off fireworks, and Molotov cocktails were also thrown.
As the premier masses his own base and labels the protesters -- many of them middle-class professionals and students -- as terrorists, anarchists and looters, even some of his supporters say they wish he’d tone down the rhetoric.
“Our prime minister is a bit harsh in attitude -- we don’t much embrace that,” said Ramazan Palut, 38, a shopkeeper who’s worked in Kasimpasa for the past 15 years. “One has to reassure the people.”
Erdogan told lawmakers from his party today not to expect a shift in tone.
“When I speak out against these people, I’m told ‘the prime minister is talking tough’,” he said in parliament. “You can call it tough talk, but I’m sorry, Tayyip Erdogan isn’t going to change.”
Since returning to Turkey on June 7 from a North African trip, Erdogan has focused on galvanizing loyalists while dismissing the protests as the work of extremists, electorally unsuccessful opposition parties and an international financial lobby seeking to profit from Turkey’s setbacks.
‘Us Against Them’
While he has agreed to meet with representatives of the demonstrators tomorrow, Erdogan also accused them of attacking headscarved women and entering an Istanbul mosque with their shoes on and carrying beer bottles, allegations they deny and say are intended to enrage the premier’s Islamic base. He’s also said that while the protesters may be able to bring a couple of hundred thousand into the streets, he could summon a million.
“The ruling AKP has fully embraced an ‘us-against-them’ approach aimed at rallying his core conservative constituency and, possibly, intimidating the protestors,” Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of London-based economic risk consultant Teneo Intelligence, said in a report published yesterday. “As a result, there is no solution in sight for the ongoing standoff.”
The anti-government demonstrations, which snowballed after May 31 when police attacked a small group occupying an Istanbul park to prevent its redevelopment under a government project, has roiled markets. The Borsa Istanbul main stock index has fallen 13 percent this month, as of 4:25 p.m. today, the worst performance among main benchmarks worldwide. The lira has weakened 1.5 percent against the dollar, and the yield on two-year benchmark debt increased 75 basis points to 6.82 percent.
Not all Erdogan’s supporters are advocating conciliation. In a post-midnight rally at the airport in Istanbul on his return, the premier addressed a crowed that chanted, “Open the way and let us crush Taksim,” which protesters had blocked off after fierce battles with police.
Ali Gunes, a municipal worker in Ankara, said he’d do just that if Erdogan ordered it.
“Erdogan is a world leader who took us from the bottom to where we are today,” Gunes said in an interview in the Subayevleri district of Ankara, a stronghold of AKP support and the prime minister’s residence in the Turkish capital. “If the prime minister says ‘die,’ we’ll die, and if he lets us, we’ll make the provocateurs pay.”
Being accused of oppressing a minority is a role-reversal for Erdogan. He came to power on a promise to deliver greater democracy, especially to a pious underclass long discriminated against by Turkey’s ruling elite and an army that sought to snuff out any hint of Islam in politics through coups and other interventions. Erdogan himself spent four months in prison in 1999 for reciting an Islamic poem that prosecutors judged was a threat to Turkey’s secular order.
“We were the victims, and because of this government and because of Erdogan we’ve had our voices heard,” Miyase Kalayci, 43, a housewife in an Islamic headscarf, said in an interview in Ankara on June 7. She had sympathy for the protesters too, though: “It’s clear there’s been some injustices against the prime minister, but in struggling against these, you mustn’t create new victims.”
Erdogan’s AKP has increased its share of the vote in both elections since its initial victory in 2002, as it subjected the army to the oversight of elected politicians, took Turkey into European Union membership talks, and presided over an expanding economy and falling inflation. The AKP won just under 50 percent in the last parliamentary ballot in 2011. Municipal voting is scheduled for 2014, followed by general elections in 2015.
Those victories have given Erdogan a clear majority in Turkey’s parliament, which protesters on the street say he’s used to steamroll legislation affecting their lifestyles into law without their consent.
Among their concerns are Erdogan’s interference in popular television shows, a law restricting alcohol sales and marketing, a perception that the media has been cowed into submission by the government, and massive infrastructure projects to change the face of Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city.
In a report published yesterday, Moody’s Investors Service, which raised Turkey to investment grade last month, said that while the protests are focused on Prime Minister Erdogan’s “perceived autocratic tendencies,” they’re unlike those that overthrew dictatorships in the so-called Arab Spring.
‘Erdogan’s Like That’
The protests have engaged many citizens who were previously politically inactive, reflecting “the presence of a weak and ineffective political opposition unable to represent the concerns of citizens who do not support the AKP,” Moody’s said. “However, Turkish voters will have ample opportunities” to express dissatisfaction through the ballot box.
Mehmet Cubuk, 60, who works at a stationery and toy shop in Erdogan’s neighborhood in Ankara, said the prime minister would probably have to temper his fiery character and adopt a more conciliatory tone with critics to end the crisis.
“Erdogan has to approach it more softly and with more understanding,” Cubuk said. “I can’t get my own son to stop smoking, despite years of telling him to stop. Turks are a people who don’t much like to be told what to do, or be pressured, and Erdogan’s like that himself.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Istanbul at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gavin Serkin at email@example.com