Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 September 2020

Turkish protests require a light touch from AKP

Mr Erdogan needs to calm the situation in Turkey, rather than raising the public rhetoric

From seemingly inconsequential beginnings, a protest against the building of a shopping centre in a park in Istanbul has exploded into a major crisis for the Turkish government. Thousands of Turks took to the streets of the nation's cities, facing teargas and police batons, and hundreds more gathered in cities around the world in solidarity.

But while the spark was small, the kindling had been a decade in the making. Although not an excuse for violence, the protests appear to be an expression of frustration with the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and some of the policies of his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A combination of what Turks call "lifestyle intervention" (the discussion about banning alcohol shops too close to schools and mosques), a peace process with the Kurdish minority that, while positive, has been opaque, and the blowback from Turkey's vehement support for the uprising in Syria; all have come together.

Yet the most salient issue for the protestors is simply the longevity of the AKP. It has ruled Turkey for 10 years with many successes, but, as with any government that runs for so long, its best ideas have run their course. Seen that way, the protests are in large part simply about Mr Erdogan himself, who has become a lightning rod for many other grievances.

Yet all the grand talk about a "Turkish Spring" is overblown. Certainly, there is mild schadenfreude in seeing Mr Erdogan, who has so fiercely championed the revolutions of the Arab world, facing dissent on home soil. But there is also no comparison between the current situation in Turkey and any of the uprisings of the Arab republics.

Mr Erdogan is a democratically elected prime minister. His party won a resounding victory two years ago, in an election where the AKP took twice the vote of its nearest rival. The mandate of the AKP is solid. The protests are a reclamation of public space and a question of law and order.

And yet, Mr Erdogan does not seem conciliatory. Having sent in the police to sweep away the protesters, he is now publicly threatening them, calling them "extremists" and warning that if they continued to gather he would bring hundreds of thousands of AKP supporters into the streets.

This is not a helpful reaction. Mr Erdogan must calm the situation. If the last two years have taught the Middle East anything, it is that when citizens feel they are not listened to, peaceful protests have a habit of spiralling out of control.

Updated: June 3, 2013 04:00 AM

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