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Turkish Prime Minister’s actions galvanize his opponents

A barricade in Istanbul: What started as a small demonstration to protect a city park has become a nationwide protest.


As it enters its fifth day, the worst political crisis in Turkey's recent history shows little sign of abating.

Violence reared again on Monday in Istanbul as protesters, entrenched in the city's Taksim Square, were met with tear gas, even as Washington said it was deeply concerned over reports that security forces of its NATO ally were responsible for injuring hundreds of people in clashes that began Friday.

In remarks that are likely to shake up U.S. relations with Turkey, Secretary of State John Kerry said: "We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police. We obviously hope that there will be a full investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force."

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Reflecting widespread concern over these developments, shares on the Turkish stock exchange were down more than 10 per cent, leading many to question the security of the country's flourishing economy, now the world's 17th largest.

All this has resulted in a serious rift in the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) as many, including the country's President, question Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarian style of governing.

Mr. Erdogan said Monday that the anti-government protesters were walking "arm-in-arm with terrorism" and that the main opposition Republican People's Party was playing an active role in the demonstrations. He added that Turkey's intelligence services were looking into who was behind the protests.

The Prime Minister angrily shrugged off the stock market's steep decline. "It's the stock market – it goes down and it goes up. It can't always be stable," he told reporters before boarding his flight to Morocco, the first stop in a four-day swing through North Africa.

The crisis began Friday when police attempted to clear a peaceful demonstration from a city park slated for the development of a mall. Resistance was met with tear gas and truncheons, and what began as a relatively small demonstration against the loss of a park grew to become a nationwide protest.

While some demonstrators may emphasize their dislike of the government's pro-Islamic policies, and others challenge its efforts to bring the military under civilian control, all appear to agree on one point: It is Mr. Erdogan's heavy-handedness that has to go.

"This is what it's all about," said Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and "this is why there's deep unhappiness within the AKP."

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Even Islamist newspapers normally supportive of the government were critical of how things were being handled. "How can the political authority allow things to get to this point," asked a columnist in the daily Yeni Safak. "Why does it [the government] act so brutally and react so violently?"

While Mr. Erdogan saw a dark hand behind the weekend's protests, President Abdullah Gul, a founder of the governing AKP, said demonstrations were a valid form of free expression.

"Democracy does not mean elections alone," said Mr. Gul. "There can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways, besides elections," he said.

"The views that are well intentioned have been read, seen and noted, and the messages have been received."

Asked on his arrival in Morocco if he understood what "messages" were meant by this, Mr. Erdogan said he had "no idea" what Mr. Gul was talking about.

"This is very significant," said Mr. Aliriza. "It shows how wide the gap has become between the two men."

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This was not the first time that Mr. Gul had intervened in the crisis.

On Saturday he urged that the security forces be withdrawn from Taksim Square, and they were.

Following his comments Monday on free expression, Turkish television reportedly began broadcasting live coverage of the protests. Until then, television coverage had been muted. On Friday, for example, the main channels showed regular programming even as international media were broadcasting live reports from the battleground.

As well, following Mr. Erdogan's departure, Mr. Gul met in the presidential palace with the leader of the Republican People's Party, of which the Prime Minister had been so critical.

Throughout his career, Mr. Erdogan has been something of a loose cannon, with a history of angry outbursts. That was the case in 2009 when the Turkish leader walked out of a live broadcast from Davos in which he had an angry exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Further back, in the early 1990s, when Mr. Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul as a member of an earlier Islamic-oriented party, he vowed to tear down the ancient walls of the city, explaining that they were built before the time of Mohammed. Cooler heads in his party, including Mr. Gul, were able to calm down the volatile mayor so that a more moderate approach prevailed.

Now, 20 years later, columnists are asking if this latest crisis will result in the loss of the political control Islamists have enjoyed over Turkey's largest city.

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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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