x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Turkish protesters say Erdogan is the problem

Anger at Turkish PM's authoritarian ways is the only common ground for many of those taking to the streets.

An anti-government protester runs away from a burning container in Istanbul's Taksim square. Reuters / Yannis Behrakis
An anti-government protester runs away from a burning container in Istanbul's Taksim square. Reuters / Yannis Behrakis

ISTANBUL // For most of the protesters who have rallied in bcity streets across Turkey in recent days, the marches and demonstrations are not so much about political projects or government policies, let alone about saving trees in an Istanbul park from bulldozers. Their anger is directed, often bitterly, against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.

"The problem is Tayyip," Cihat Parilti said yesterday at Gezi Park, the focus of the protests that started last Friday when police tried to end a sit-in by activists aimed at preventing the park from being razed to make way for a shopping mall. Mr Parilti, a 21-year-old university student, has been encamped in the park since last week.

Anger at Mr Erdogan, 59, Turkey's most powerful prime minister since the 1950s, is the glue that binds protesters across many walks of life, Mr Parilti and other demonstrators and their supporters said.

"Everybody is here, except AKP voters," said Ahmet, 62, referring to Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party.

Ahmet, who identified himself only with his first name, said he had come to Gezi Park to cheer on the demonstrators and join the chorus against a premier who had "divided the country".

Savas Halvasi, 50, a tourism manager, said Mr Erdogan's harsh, judgemental rhetoric had put off many people over the years.

"He is saying that everyone who does not agree with him is bad," Mr Halvasi said about Mr Erdogan, who has been in office since 2003. "He has to be more receptive to criticism. The protests have taught him a lesson: the Turks are not like sheep."

Mr Erdogan only experienced the bile from afar yesterday - he is on a tour of North Africa tour with a delegation of 300 Turkish business leaders. But the man in charge of the government in his absence, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, yesterday apologised to demonstrators injured by police and promised to reassess the Gezi Park development project. The protesters were unmoved.

"It has to come from Tayyip himself," said Tamer Aksu, a businessman, who like many demonstrators used Mr Erdogan's first name.

People in the park yesterday accused Mr Erdogan of pushing projects through without consulting the wider public and of trying to force a religiously conservative agenda on the country. The Gezi Park project, a plan to build a new bridge spanning the Bosphorus and a recent law restricting the sale of alcohol were among the examples of what the demonstrators described as Mr Erdogan's overbearing, schoolmarmish style.

"He has said that everyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic," Mr Halvasi said. "I drink a glass every now and then, but that doesn't mean I am an alcoholic," he added. "People have had enough."

These fed-up people include "professors down to shoeshine boys", said Vildan Uyguroglu, an unemployed university graduate, as she handed out chocolate in Gezi Park. Along with other food, clothes and medicine, the candy was one of the donations from supporters of the demonstrators that were being distributed there yesterday.

With a governing style that the demonstrators and their supporters view as increasingly authoritarian, Mr Erdogan has "created this very unusual coalition against himself", said Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, located in the Besiktas neighbourhood, which saw some of the fiercest clashes between demonstrators and police in recent days.

According to Turkey's interior ministry, there have been protest marches in 67 of Turkey's 81 provinces, which suggests that the demonstrations are turning out more than just members of the urban middle and upper classes.

Mr Erdogan has insisted that he retains a wide reservoir of support across the country.

He said on Monday that he was "barely holding back 50 per cent" of the Turkish population from flooding the streets to confront the protesters. The figure was a reference to the percentage of the vote that the AKP won in at the last general election two years ago.

The prime minister has accused the main opposition party, the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), of orchestrating the protests. But the protest in Gezi Park started independently of the CHP last week, and some protesters dismissed suggestions that the opposition party enjoyed much support among the demonstrators.

"Last Saturday, CHP leaders wanted to come to Taksim Square and hold speeches," said one student in the square next to the Gezi Park. "But they turned back when they saw they were not welcome."

This scorn for one possible institutional channel for the demonstrators' discontent was another indication of how ephemeral the protests may prove to be.

Indeed, Professor Aktar suggested that Turkey's informal coalition of the disenchanted was unlikely to remain united for long, for they have little in common beyond their anger at Mr Erdogan.

"These are people who are not used to sitting together," he said.

Several AKP supporters who strolled through the park yesterday said the prime minister would emerge stronger than ever from the crisis.

"Look at all the burned-out police cars and municipal vehicles," said Cedal Akyildiz, 30, a construction worker. "Who is going to pay for that? It's us, with our tax money." He said the protests had not changed his view of Mr Erdogan as "Number one".

Asked whether he expected any consequences of the current protests for upcoming elections, Mr Akyildiz answered: "Tayyip will get even more votes."