“They’re only trees!” the protester shouted. But, in Turkey, four protesters became 4,000 – and then the effort to stop trees from being cut down in a park in Istanbul turned into a surge of demonstrations against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey hasn’t seen an explosion of popular anger on this scale for decades. Ordinary Turks are speaking out against what many see as rampantly authoritarian behaviour by Prime Minister Erdogan.
The leader of the AK Party, which originated in moderate political Islam, took office thanks to 50 percent of the votes in the 2011 election, and proceeded to impose his political will in many, if not all, social domains. His current project is to reform the constitution before his third term in office ends in 2015, making no secret that he plans to run for president after that.
The AK Party’s ten years in power in Turkey has brought the country stability and strong economic growth, but a series of events in the past few months has aroused the secular population. Ten days ago, a crowd gathered in the capital Ankara to protest against a ban on kissing in public – on the subway system, to be precise. A group of Islamists drew knives, stabbing one person.
Many people are wary that moves may be afoot to bring Turkish society more into line with Islamic ways. Limiting the sale of alcohol reinforced this suspicion a few days ago. Many Turks object to certain moves as an intrusion by the government into their private lives.
Last month, Turkish Airlines staff rejected the national carrier’s prohibition against cabin attendants wearing lipstick and nail varnish – supposedly a request by passengers, according to authorities. Employees’ unions said that was nonsense, and called it political and ideological posturing.
In April, the musician Fazil Say was handed a suspended ten-month prison sentence on a conviction of having insulted religious values, by publicly quoting a poem and suggesting people reflect on their consideration of morals and violence. In another case of blasphemy, a well-known writer was also given a prison sentence.
A growing part of the Turkish public also disapproves of Erdogan’s foreign policy on the conflict in Syria. Earlier last month, demonstrators in Ankara tied the government to a double car bombing which killed dozens in Reyhanli near the Syrian border. The town has become a logistics base for the rebels fighting Syria’s President Assad.
We asked Professor Riva Kastoryano at the Paris Institute of Political Studies why the Turkish people are protesting against the government on such a massive scale.
Kastoryano replied: “We can say that there are several causes. There’s not just one reason. At the beginning it was a peaceful protest aimed at preserving an Istanbul park. They began as an ecological protest but because Turkish police violently attacked the protesters, the manner changed very fast. And now, it seems that people from all sections of Turkish society, people who want to express their various dissatisfactions with the government, are joining the meetings.”
Journalist Devrim Hacısalihoglu, euronews: “We hear that a lot of people who have never in their lives taken part in any demonstrations have joined this one.”
Kastoryano: “When I talk to people in Turkey, I sense there is much enthusiasm to be part of this protest, even though they’ve never been a part of any kind of political movement. There are people with so many different political viewpoints joining the protest. Moreover, the protest has evolved into something other than a homogeneous one as time passes. It’s not a demonstration spurred by the opposition anymore. There is growing dissent even among the supporters of the ruling AK Party. They want the government to amend the political deficiencies. So this is not a movement that can be attributed to a homogeneous ideology.”
euronews: “We’ve seen the protests are not only being held in Istanbul but have spread to other Turkish cities. How far do you think it could go?”
Kastoryano: “It was a movement of solidarity against police violence initially, then it became a widespread reaction to the prime minister’s uncompromising attitude. Solidarity is the very nature of these social movements. As we all know, Facebook, Twitter and social media in general contribute to these kinds of movements so that they become widespread. Although Turkish media are not capable of expressing everything they want to, with the help of social media, the movement has grown and become more effective.”
euronews: “There are analysts finding similarities between these protests and the Arab Spring and some even call it the Turkish Spring, Do you think is it possible to see it that way?”
Kastoryano: “I don’t see it as a Turkish Spring since Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a democratically elected leader. The AK Party government has won elections three times in a row and it doesn’t represent a despotic regime, which is in power in spite of public opinion.
“This means that Erdogan can’t stay in power unless he wins another election. Democracy in Turkey will be the solution. How the movement will evolve depends on Erdogan’s response to the demands of the protesters. Whether there will be negotiations and compromise at the end of this process will determine the outcome of this situation. Everything will be decided by steps taken on both sides. Do we want Turkey to keep its democracy? Yes. This is why the people are out on the streets. An early election can be called or they can wait for local elections; these are the steps to go through but the electoral process will decide.”