Widespread protests pose challenge to Turkey’s prime minister

Posted at 9:03 AM, Jun 03, 2013

By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) — In Turkey, it’s not about the park anymore. It’s about the prime minister.

What began as a small sit-in over the Turkish government’s plan to demolish a park in central Istanbul in favor of a shopping arcade has swelled to become the biggest protest movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he was elected more than 10 years ago.

About a week since the demonstration started quietly in the park in Taksim Square, the now-angry protests show no sign of abating — and a defiant Erdogan shows no inclination to give in to their demands.

On Monday, he dismissed allegations that security forces used excessive force, and downplayed that Turkey could be on the cusp of its own “Arab Spring.”

“We are servants of the people, not masters. We did not use violence,” he said before leaving for a four-day trip to North Africa.

“Those in Turkey who speak of the Turkish Spring are right; the season is, in fact, spring,” he said. “But there are those trying to turn it into a winter.”

Meanwhile, the interior ministry urged residents to not take to the streets Monday.

“We invite our citizens especially our youth to act with common sense and sensitivity and refrain from taking part in these illegal demonstrations being carried out by certain groups today, the day when the work week begins,” it said.

On Sunday night, protesters wearing face masks and goggles hurled rocks and police fired tear gas in the Besiktas district of central Istanbul. Some demonstrators wounded in the clashes, including a young man with a bloodied face, were carried to a 150-year-old mosque for treatment by medics.

The protests have spread beyond Istanbul to other parts of the country. There were reports of confrontations in the capital, Ankara, as well as the port cities of Izmir and Adana.

There have been protests in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces in recent days, according to Turkey’s semi-official Andalou News Agency. More than 700 people have been detained since Tuesday, and most have been released, the agency said. Fifty-eight civilians are still hospitalized and 115 security officers have been injured.

“There is civil police arresting people all over the place,” Cenker Kardesler, a 30-year-old businessman, said by phone from Adana on Sunday. “The police tried to corner the people. They came at us from both sides.”

Plans for the park

Gezi Park sits in Istanbul’s main commercial district. The park is the last green space in central Istanbul.

So, it didn’t go down well with many residents when authorities announced they want to raze the park and put in its place a replica of 19th Century Ottoman barracks that lined the city. Within the barracks would sit a shopping mall.

At first, the protests involved a handful of angry residents holding sit-ins. But the numbers quickly grew.

Riot police moved in, lobbing tear gas and pepper spray.

Protesters responded by hurling bottles, setting up barricades, blocking bulldozers and burning trash in the middle of the street.

Then, outraged by the behavior of security forces, demonstrators began attacking police.

And something snapped.

On Friday, a district court ordered a temporary stop to any construction.

Mayor Kadir Topbas emphasized the park demolition was not related to the shopping mall project, but was a part a wider renovation project of Taksim Square.

But by then, it was too late.

Under fire

In Istanbul, the crowds have been chanting “Tayyip resign” — referring to Erdogan — and “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism.”

Elected to power than a decade ago, Erdogan is the most powerful and popular politician Turkey has seen in generations, but his approach to leadership doesn’t sit well with all Turks, said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper.

“We have a prime minister who has done great deeds and he really has run the economy well,” she said. “But you also have this paternalistic style: ‘I know what’s good for you. I, as your father, can decide on the park, the bridge, the city and the constitution.’ So, I think people are just wanting to have a more inclusive form of democracy in Turkey.”

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, appeals to a base of culturally conservative voters.

On Monday, Erdogan said opponents who had failed to defeat his party in elections were trying to beat it “by other means.”

“The issue of trees in Gezi Park thing is just the trigger,” he said.

A day earlier, he praised his accomplishments overseeing a decade of unprecedented economic growth in Turkey. He also defended his record as a leader who has planted many trees.

“They are putting on airs saying we massacre trees,” he said. “We have planted approximately 2 billion trees.”

Self-styled ‘sultan’?

But many of the demonstrators say their anger is no longer directed against the proposed government plan to demolish Taksim Square’s Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul.

“This park was just the ignition of all that,” said Yakup Efe Tuncay, a 28-year-old demonstrator who carried a Turkish flag while walking through the park Saturday. “The Erdogan government is usually considered as authoritarian. He has a big ego; he has this Napoleon syndrome. He takes himself as a sultan. … He needs to stop doing that. He’s just a prime minister.”

The police crackdown on the park demonstrators set off the wider unrest. Now, the scope of the protests shows there is a bigger issue, about freedom of speech and accusations of heavy-handed government.

The scope of the protests shows there is a bigger issue, about freedom of speech and accusations of authoritarian government.

“People are entitled to disagreement with the government; they can exercise their democratic rights, but they can do so within the context of a democratic society,” Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said Saturday.

International criticism

International human rights groups Amnesty International and Greenpeace have denounced what they describe as the excessive use of police force against peaceful protesters.

In Istanbul, thousands of protesters remained in control of Taksim Square on Sunday after security forces abandoned the district a day earlier following 36 hours of vicious clashes and angry demonstrations against the government.

Demonstrators had erected makeshift barricades at the entrance to the square, which holds huge symbolic importance for Turkey’s leftist political parties and labor movement.

During the day Sunday, tensions remained high between protesters and police, but the scene was calmer than it had been in recent days. Many people helped municipal workers in their cleanup efforts.

Events have moved so quickly, no one here really knows what will happen next.

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh contributed to this report.