Europe

Turkey's strongman under scrutiny as more discontent threatens

  • 17 June 2013
  • From the section Europe
"This is Turkey," PM Erdogan told a huge crowd of supporters on Sunday

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revels in his reputation as a strong leader.

That strength is about to be put to the test.

His decision to crack down on protestors in Istanbul and other cities across the country has allowed him to stamp his authority on proceedings.

And the police have regained control of Taksim Square and neighbouring Gezi Park, the symbolic heart of the protests.

Two huge political rallies over the weekend - in Ankara and Istanbul - have also served as a reminder of the size of Mr Erdogan's political base.

"If anyone wants to see the real picture of Turkey," the prime minister said, surveying a vast crowd in the afternoon sun, "this is Turkey."

The protesters were dismissed as vandals and terrorists at the heart of a vast conspiracy involving the foreign media and financial speculators.

"It is nothing more than the minority's attempt to dominate the majority," he said. "We will not allow it."

'Brutal' treatment

But the way Mr Erdogan has reacted, and the excessive use of force by the police against peaceful protesters, has also solidified opposition against him.

"For me it was about protecting trees in the park at first," said Pilar, a teacher in a crowd chanting anti-government slogans in the Besiktas district next to the Bosphorus.

"But things have changed. We have been treated very brutally."

After a decade in which the parliamentary opposition to Mr Erdogan has been weak, a variety of groups - liberals, secularists and minorities among them - have found common cause.

There is no question that protests - in one form or another - will continue.

"Suddenly people realised that there were a lot of them who felt the same, and the spontaneity of that has been rather extraordinary," said Hugh Pope, a long time Istanbul resident and Turkey director of the International Crisis Group.

Much of the discontent is focused on the style in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan chooses to govern, and there are signs that it is quite deep-rooted.

He came into office offering a burst of democratic reform that Turkey urgently needed. But a decade on, could his strength also become his weakness?

Interfering?

A survey in the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman suggests that growing numbers of Turks are concerned that the government is becoming more authoritarian.

A majority of those questioned also said they thought the government was increasingly interfering in the "lifestyle choices" of individuals.

"The challenge now for Mr Erdogan is whether can he be a fully representative leader," said Hugh Pope.

"There are others in his party who are more comfortable about reaching across political divides."

But there could be a long summer of discontent in Istanbul and other cities.

The fact that major trades unions have chosen to express their support for the protests shows how their appeal has spread far beyond their roots in Gezi Park.

And there is concern that growing tensions between left and right could intensify. Turkey has bitter memories of that in the past.

The apparent threat by the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc to deploy the armed forces if necessary adds another level of sensitivity.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed protesters as "terrorists"

No compromise

It is Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has played the decisive role in recent years in reducing the influence of the strongly secular military over Turkish politics.

For now, Mr Erdogan has chosen the path of no compromise with the protesters. He calls for national unity, as long as it is done his way.

It may be something of a gamble, even though the economic impact of the protests so far has not been as big as the damage done to Turkey's image abroad.

But the financial markets have reacted nervously to the continuing unrest, and the often heavy-handed police response.

It all means that Turkey is entering a volatile period, in the run-up to nationwide local elections next year.

And all eyes will be on its dominant political figure, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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