On the seventh day into the mushrooming demonstrations all across Turkey, nearly 2,000 people have been detained and over a hundred injured in unprecedented rallies that echoed the once reformist government’s growing indifference to the demands of the people.
In a latest twist to the saga, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday that his government will continue to “realize their dream” of transforming Taksim Square, in central İstanbul, in a defiant speech. Intended to smooth the tensions and avert proliferating false rumors circulating around social media networks, Erdoğan’s remarks only illustrated his determination to go ahead without catering to the demands of hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to the streets.
Members of some radical groups, mostly communist movements and organizations including extreme leftist groups such as the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), who bombed U.S. embassy in Ankara on February this year, tried to hijack the demonstrations by vandalizing cars and businesses. On a Saturday night of looting , 89 police vehicles, 42 private cars, 4 buses, 18 municipality vehicles, 4 government buildings, 94 businesses and 1 police station were destroyed or burned.
People join the protests with banging pots and car honks in a show of solidarity with those marching against what they say is the increasingly growing authoritarian rule of ErdoğanMahir Zeynalov
The protests in Istanbul are largely peaceful but police frequently clash with protesters by firing tear gas as they approach the office of Erdoğan in Besiktas. To the contrary, protests in capital Ankara and many Aegean provinces are largely violent, with police and protesters clashing late into the night.
Everything started when police used excessive force to disperse a sit-in protest in Taksim’s Gezi Park, one of the few green areas in central İstanbul, causing outrage among people, including supporters of the government. The protests soon swelled and spread to other cities. What was a modest environmental protest by a dozen people in the park has morphed into one of the biggest challenges to the 10-year rule of Erdoğan. The matter has now gone well beyond what it was a few days ago and is not limited to a demand to stop demolishing the green area of Taksim.
Misreading the situation
The government still misreads the situation, with Erdoğan repeatedly saying that both during his rule of Istanbul in early 1990s and in the past decade, his government has done much more than what his predecessors did. The matter of contention, however, is not related to his performance or his plans in Taksim. It is about a respect of the demands of people, no matter how misguided they are.
Erdoğan made it clear in his Sunday statements that his intentions remain only to make the square a place that befits Istanbul’s beauty. True or not, this is not what people living in the area, and hundreds of thousands of people chanting slogans against him, want to see. He seemed to belittle what the “minority” wants and vowed that his government cannot nod to a situation where minority dictates over majority.
Taksim remains a “sacred” place for leftists and numerous attempts to deny them the area to protest have mostly backfired. Between 1979 and 2009, Taksim was banned for May Day celebrations after 37 people were killed in clashes and a stampede in 1976. It was this government that again lifted the ban and allowed leftist groups to mark their holiday.
Turkey has seen a number of and even bigger demonstrations against Erdoğan’s rule in the past decade but this is the first time that people flock to streets in the hope of seeing the prime minister leave. The protests are unprecedented in nature and take place in almost every corner of Istanbul and in other major cities. People join the protests with banging pots and car honks in a show of solidarity with those marching against what they say is the increasingly growing authoritarian rule of Erdoğan. “Erdoğan is the most democratic leader Turkey has ever seen but he is less democratic than he was five years ago,” a protester said.
The government has grown increasingly intrusive into the lives of its citizens, with the prime minister directly involved in issues such as family planning and the fight against smoking. His defiant tone and determined position to go ahead with the Taksim plans is part of this troubling trend of “deciding for others.” When this indifference to the demands of the people was coupled with excessive use of force by police, many in the country understood that the government is imposing its will and they saw the need to fight against this.
Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov