June 3, 2013

Turkey’s Authoritarian Gets Called Out

By: Elisha Maldonado

Rejecting claims about his dictatorial proclivities, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday did what he does best, by calling those protesting his government an extremist fringe. Naturally, opposition to Erdogan can only be be caused by extremism.

In an attempt to restore order after three days of protests — which were jumpstarted Friday after police cracked down on a peaceful sit-in opposing the tearing down of trees at Gezi Park, on the edge of Taksim Square in Istanbul, to make way for the building of a shopping mall — Erdogan managed to pull off a provocative tone rather than a calming one in a televised interview.

“If they call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator,’ I have nothing to say,” he said in address to a group representing migrants from the Balkans. And later in interview, he added: “We would not yield to a few looters coming to that square and provoking our people, our nation, based on their misinformation.”

This only serves to encourage the popularly held view – among those protesting, at the very least — that Erdogan is a rigid politician who must have his hand in everything, especially where exercising freedom is concerned. As one protestor told the BBC, it’s not about the park. “This issue is about freedom,” she said.

Though the intended bulldozing of Gezi Park was just the last straw for the unrest in Istanbul and Ankara, the focus has turned to the people’s grievances with Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The complaints range from his curbing of when alcohol can be bought, sold, and consumed to his restrictions on labor unions to police brutality to the number of journalists sitting in a jail for writing.

After 10 years in office, Turks have had enough, which might not bode very well for Erdogan’s aspiration to become president (but only after he strengthens the office by transferring to it the power he now holds as prime minister).

“Protests do not pose a threat to government stability, and are unlikely to threaten the ruling party’s re-election,” But Naz Masraff, an analyst at Eurasia Group, which measures political risk, told Bloomberg in an email Sunday. “However, the protests will significantly constrain Erdogan’s ability to push for a presidential system in Turkey, as these events show he is increasingly perceived as becoming more authoritarian.”

So in a quasi-attempt to shake off that perception, Erdogan employed another of his favorite tactics: blaming the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, of using the demonstrations for political gain.

“If we set aside those that joined upon their innocent motives and information they got from the media, there are also ones that attended an event organized by extremists,” he said, tossing in the possibility of foreign provocation. “Our intelligence agency has their own investigation on that — there is no need to disclose them as this or that.”

An eye-roll can be inserted here. At base, all that really matters is that Turks are speaking up and calling out their leaders when they exceed the bounds of their authority. Lasting change is incremental, but it starts with having a voice and the courage to use it.

“Of course the prime minister is not going to resign [and] maybe they will even in the end build a shopping mall in the park,” Erhan, a business consultant who protested over the weekend, told the Financial Times. “But people know now that they have power, that they can go to the square and change something and say something. That’s our accomplishment.”

It is. Absolutely, it is.

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times. Erdogan imagecourtesy of Big Stock Photo.