x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turks warned against 'hot autumn' of discontent

Clashes raise fears of escalating confrontations as the government vows to crack down on dissent. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

Protesters wait before a Turkish riot police barricade near Taksim square in Istanbul on Tuesday. The police later fired tear gas to dispurse them.
Protesters wait before a Turkish riot police barricade near Taksim square in Istanbul on Tuesday. The police later fired tear gas to dispurse them.

ISTANBUL // Two months after anti-government protests shook Turkey, the ruling party has warned activists against embarking on a "hot autumn" of discontent.

Police in Istanbul used tear gas late on Tuesday as protesters prepared to march towards Gezi Park, the centre of the June unrest that began when security forces cracked down on a protest against government plans to redevelop the park.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, a member of parliament for the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party, said police had fired tear gas at him during the confrontation.

"I don't know how hot the autumn will become, but the root causes for the protests are still there," Mr Kurkcu said.

"It all depends on how the government reacts" to renewed demonstrations. If the government sticks to its tough stance, "tension will be inevitable", he added.

The BDP supported the countrywide protests, in which five demonstrators and one police officer were killed.

Mr Kurkcu said the campaigning for local elections next March, the first test of voter support for the government since the Gezi unrest, was also likely to increase friction in the coming months.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, this week called on his ruling Justice and Development Party to use the elections to highlight "how democratic this country actually is".

While the Erdogan government has accused protestors of vandalism, they say the prime minister is displaying signs of authoritarianism and of ignoring the views of those who do not share his views.

Tuesday's incident in Istanbul followed a clash between protesters and police in the southern city of Antakya late on Monday. Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse that group.

The Gezi riots were sparked by a brutal police intervention against protesters in Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square.

The unrest mushroomed into the biggest challenge to Mr Erdogan in his 10 years in power before dying down with the start of the summer holidays towards the end of June.

Now, incidents such as the ones in Istanbul and Adana suggest that anti-government demonstrations could flare up again.

Also on Monday, fans at a top-league football match in Istanbul chanted slogans in support of the protest movement, despite a government ban on political slogans in football stadiums.

Mr Erdogan this month vowed that police would intervene to stop a new wave of protests.

"Those who want to try it should know that all the security forces of this country are ready to give the necessary response and to put everybody in his proper place in case he doesn't know his limits," he said.

The prime minister was responding to a reporter's question about a possible "hot autumn" this year. The phrase was first used by Mustafa Balbay, a journalist sentenced this month to life in prison for involvement in a suspected nationalist coup attempt against Mr Erdogan.

Ankara said it was concerned that the protest movement might try to provoke new tensions to portray the government in a bad light.

Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said during a television interview that demonstrators could try to put the government under pressure ahead of the local elections in seven months.

"We have intelligence suggesting that these protests could come up again in the near future with different aims and different forms."

The sports minister, Suat Kilic, said activists bent on turning football stadiums into venues of political demonstrations would "pay the price".

He also said the authorities would move to prevent protest marches in universities. Meanwhile, the state agency in charge of student grants said those who had taken part in actions of "resistance, boycott, occupation, writing slogans, making signs and shouting slogans" would not receive their money.

According to news reports, police had been stocking up on tear gas and 60 new water cannon vehicles were ordered in expectation of further unrest.

Some say a new confrontation is likely.

Ozgur Peynirci, a law student and member of the protest movement, said he expected student demonstrations to flare up during the new university term, which starts in mid-September.

"It will continue in September," he said of the protests. "It will become more lively" than before the start of the Gezi unrest, he added in reference to student life at universities in Turkey.

Erdem Gunduz, a dancer who became known as "The Standing Man" after he pioneered a silent form of protest at Taksim Square in June that was copied by demonstrators all over the country, said there was a general expectation of a "hot autumn" in Turkey, although he remained sceptical.

"Many people say it will start in September, but I don't agree with them," he said.

But there was a risk of escalation if the state overreacts, he added.

"The government is afraid of every small demonstration."

tseibert@thenational.ae

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