Turkish authorities are opening Gezi Park near Istanbul’s famed Taskim Square on Monday, the origin and flashpoint of month-long protests that rocked Turkey for a month, but this does not yet seem to be the end of high running tensions.
Although the park is adjacent to the Taksim Square, one of the most famous venues for Istanbulities, few knew its name before a modest environmental sit-in protest was dispersed by heavy-handed police and sparked nationwide protests. Four people were killed, one of them a police officer, and dozens were seriously injured, in weeks of clashes across the country. The initial protesters were demanding authorities halt a construction of a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks, which government says will be a museum open to public.
Failing to reach consensus
For three days in late May, Turkish police raided Gezi Park early in the morning to clear the park from sit-in protesters and the use of excessive force has turned the small sit-in into bigger anti-government protests. The demonstrations quickly spilled over into other cities across the country, demanding Turkey’s still popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resign.
As the government faced tremendous pressure to cater to the demands of the protesters, Erdogan allowed protesters to occupy the Taksim Square and Gezi Park for 18 days. This period allowed the government and the protesters to listen to each other but both sides failed to reach a consensus on how to move forward. The patience of the government had run out and riot police were dispatched to raid the Gezi Park and clear Taksim Square from the protesters. The raid prompted several days of protests and clashes but they significantly scaled down and lost momentum.
The government said it has difficulty to fathom why protesters were still adamant in occupying Gezi Park while there was an ongoing court case regarding the issue and the government pledged to hold a plebsicite in case the court delivers a go-ahead decision. Last week, an Istanbul court made public its previous unannounced decision and rejected the construction of the barracks. The government has not signalled that it would appeal the court's decision and instead started to renovate the park, by planting dozens of trees and flowers.
On Saturday, Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu announced that the park would be opened on Monday but they won’t allow a demonstration in Taksim Square. Hours after the statement, hundreds of protesters gathered in and around the square, clashing with police in major streets in central Istanbul. The latest confrontation is a clear indication that the tensions are still running high and protesters are far from satisfied by the government’s moves.
Although Erdogan has constantly belittled the protesters and tried to undermine them by describing them a minority, some of whom had involved in violence, the protests could damage Turkey’s reputation abroad and put the country into political uncertainty and economic vulnerability. The prime minister organized several huge rallies in major cities, including Istanbul and capital Ankara, to show to Turkish public and the world that he still enjoys high popularity and is a legitimate leader of the country, officially launching a campaign trail for three elections Turkey is planning to hold next year.
Erdogan ups the ante
During the course of the protests and weeks followed the clashes, the prime minister has upped the ante and sharpened his rhetoric that helped unite ranks of his party members and strengthen his electoral base. The most frequently reiterated emphasis in his speeches before cheering crowd is put on the ‘ballot box’ and ‘legitimacy’. Long sidelined and oppressed during a mostly anti-democratic rule of secular minority for decades in this staunchly secular country, elections have become a byword for legitimacy and rule of people among conservative majority. The prime minister constantly emphasizes that his government is against the tyrannical rule of the majority over minority but also rejects the minority imposing its will on an elected government, chosen with simple majority vote.
Erdogan’s tough rhetoric does little to satisfy angry protesters but it also helps him strengthen his constituency ahead of three key elections. Erdogan is spot on when he constantly argues that his government walked a fine line in not interfering in people’s lifestyle. In practise, despite popular belief, Erdogan’s government did little to implement actual policies that could be interpreted as interference into people’s lifestyles and he was often unfairly targeted for his speeches which mostly didn’t turn into real policies.
Despite relative calm as the Turkish authorities open renovated Gezi Park to the public on Monday, many questions remain unanswered and challenges untackled. Young protesters flocked into streets last month to get their voice heard, bypassing largely ineffective opposition, with vague demands. Ignoring them risks the ruling party lose its small but key secular and liberal base, not to mention sympathy Erdogan's reformist government long enjoyed in Western capitals.
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