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Protests persist amid concern over Turkish PM's steps to consolidate power

A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas against a woman as people protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul May 28, 2013. In her red cotton summer dress, necklace and white bag slung over her shoulder she might have been floating across the lawn at a garden party; but before her crouches a masked policeman firing teargas spray that sends her long hair billowing upwards. Endlessly shared on social media and replicated as a cartoon on posters and stickers, the image of the woman in red has become the leitmotif for female protesters during days of violent anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul.


Turkey's leaders have struck a conciliatory note in an effort to bring to an end to nationwide protests now entering their sixth day. But the real reason behind those often violent demonstrations – the autocratic nature of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – is far from gone, and an end to the crisis is not yet in sight.

Turkey's protesters are concerned that as Mr. Erdogan approaches the end of his third term in office – the last term permitted by the constitution – the charismatic politician vote-getter may be setting himself up as the Turkish Vladimir Putin.

While some have likened the Turkish protests to the Arab Spring movement that rose in several neighbouring Middle Eastern countries in 2011, the better analogy for Turkey today may be to Russia six or seven years ago, when its president, Mr. Putin, was solidifying his hold on political power.

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Protesters in Turkey, like those in the Arab countries of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, are mostly young; they are using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate, and are calling for the resignation of their national political leader. But that's pretty well where the similarity with the Arab Spring ends.Arab protesters sought the downfall of dictatorial regimes. Turkey, on the other hand, has enjoyed democratic elections for several years, and while Mr. Erdogan may govern in an autocratic manner, he remains accountable to the voters and must respect the country's constitution. He has been freely voted into office three successive times with an increased plurality in each election.

In 2011, his Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish abbreviation as the AKP) received 50 per cent of the vote after 83 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.

However, that hasn't stopped Mr. Erdogan from seeking greater, longer-lasting power.

Just as Mr. Putin in Russia faced a limit on the number of consecutive terms he could serve as president, Mr. Erdogan is prevented from running for re-election as Turkey's prime minister in 2015.

Mr. Putin's solution was to have a devoted follower, Dmitry Medvedev, run to succeed him as president, then appoint Mr. Putin prime minister for one term. After that, Mr. Medvedev stepped aside to allow Mr. Putin to run again for president, and to immediately reappoint Mr. Medvedev prime minister, the positions the two men hold today.

In Turkey, it is no secret that Mr. Erdogan is expected to run in next year's election for president, a position currently held by his colleague Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP, who gave up his party affiliation to serve as head of state.

For his part, Mr. Erdogan is said not to be content with a position that is more ceremonial than politically powerful, and is seeking a constitutional amendment that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, as in Russia. That will require an extra-large majority of support to pass in a popular referendum.

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Even if Mr. Erdogan achieves that, what worked for Mr. Putin in Russia may not work for the Turkish leader. At least one important reason is the role of his political partner, Mr. Gul.

He temporarily served as prime minister in 2002, while Mr. Erdogan awaited legislation that overturned a ban on his serving in office (owing to his Islamic political background). Mr. Gul then stepped aside and served as foreign minister until elected by parliament to the presidency in 2007.

For a long time, it was assumed that Mr. Gul would step aside for Mr. Erdogan next year. It is no longer so certain.

Events this past week have shown Mr. Erdogan at his democratic worst, and Mr. Gul at his best.

It is Mr. Gul who has attempted to moderate an end to the current wave of protests, expressing support for democracy in all its expressions even as Mr. Erdogan labels the protesters terrorists. And it was Mr. Gul who met Tuesday with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, just before Mr. Arinc issued an apology to peaceful protesters, in the hopes of ending the crisis. Mr. Arinc's gesture was praised by the White House, which has invested heavily in Turkey's moderate Islamic government.

Mr. Gul may be showing his displeasure with his colleague, Mr. Erdogan, who is playing fast and loose with democracy in measures ranging from the violent suppression of peaceful protest, to the arrest of hundreds of journalists and the high-profile trials of academics and military leaders accused of plotting against the government.

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Some suggest Mr. Gul might run against Mr. Erdogan for the office of president. It is also possible that Mr. Gul might return to party politics and seek the office of prime minister. Either way, Mr. Gul appears to be in a stronger bargaining position today than ever before.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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