Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc sought to defuse protests that entered a fifth day today, apologizing to victims of excessive police force and saying the government has learned some lessons.
Initial rallies against plans to develop a park in Taksim Square in Istanbul were “rightful and legitimate,” Arinc told reporters in Ankara today. “The excessive use of force against those who were acting with sensitivity on the environment was wrong.” He also said, though, that his administration “won’t bow to pressure that is coming from the streets,” and called on people to withdraw so that the “extreme forces” behind the violence can be dealt with.
The Istanbul park protest has escalated since May 31 into nationwide unrest, as demonstrators throughout the country took to the streets to condemn what they say is the autocratic style of the Islamist-rooted government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their grievances include alleged police brutality, curbs on alcohol sales and restrictions on labor unions.
Two of the main union groups, Disk and Kesk, called strike actions today to support the protests. Thousands of Kesk members marched to the park in Taksim, beating drums and calling on Erdogan to resign. In Ankara, clashes continued with police using tear gas and water cannons.
In both cities, barricades erected by the protesters on central roads remain in place. Arinc didn’t say when or how security forces plan to remove them. He said the damage from the protests exceeds 70 million liras ($37 million) and warned that prolonged unrest will damage Turkey’s economy and tourism industry. Earlier, Basaran Ulusoy, chairman of a travel agency association, said Turkey is losing bookings.
In a heated debate in parliament today, opposition lawmakers blamed the government for the unrest. “We will end your dictatorship,” said Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker from the Republican People’s Party.
Turkey’s financial markets pared losses today. The benchmark stock index gained 4.9 percent at the close in Istanbul after falling 10.5 percent yesterday, the most in more than a decade. Yields on two-year lira bonds fell 75 basis points to 6.03 percent, erasing yesterday’s 71 basis-point surge, the biggest on record.
Arinc is standing in for Erdogan, who left the country yesterday for a three-day trip to North Africa after telling reporters that the protests were the work of extremist groups backed by a political opposition unable to defeat him in elections.
Arinc spoke after meeting President Abdullah Gul, and he praised the president’s “constructive” role in the crisis. Gul yesterday said that the protest “message” had been received, and that democracy wasn’t restricted to elections.
Gul and Erdogan are longtime political allies, though local media have reported strains between them in recent years. While the president’s powers are largely symbolic, his position above party politics might enable him to play a mediating role.
Arinc said that 244 police and 64 protesters have been injured nationwide during the demonstrations. He said a man in Hatay earlier reported to have been shot dead during a protest in fact died of other causes, which are still under investigation.