It started with a small protest over the decision to pave over a small park in Istanbul. But that decision and the Ankara government’s heavy-handed reaction has sparked the most violent riots that Turkey has experienced in decades. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, for years applauded as a moderate Muslim and pragmatist who has overseen his country’s economic resurgence, is now widely seen as having lost touch with the masses of Turkish people and is feared to have embraced an intolerant and authoritarian agenda.
Mr. Erdogan has been in power for over a decade, leading the Islamic-based AK Party (AKP) to an ever-increasing share of the vote in three national elections. Throughout that time, opponents have tried to raise fears that his Muslim roots would clash with modern Turkey’s secular constitution. He has, until now, turned back those criticisms quite successfully.
Instead, Mr. Erdogan practiced a moderate, practical political program that aimed to consolidate democracy — read: trim the power of the military, a powerful force in Turkey, which engineered four coups in the second half of the 20th century — and create political stability.
That effort was facilitated by Turkey’s desire to join the European Union, which demanded conformity with its political democratic framework. Economic growth was the result of that political program. Reform and focus produced annual economic expansion of about 5 percent over the decade of AKP rule.
More recently, Mr. Erdogan seems to have lost his touch. Some blame his decision to step down after his third term expires in 2015. The prime minister is pushing for constitutional change that will transform the largely ceremonial presidency into a more powerful executive, a position that he will then claim in the next election.
Mounting dissatisfaction with Mr. Erdogan boiled over when a small group of protesters tried to challenge the government’s decision to start an urban development project that would transform Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park into a shopping mall and luxury residences.
The project is symbolic on many levels: Istanbul dedicates just 1.5 percent of its land to public parks and the square is a historic site that honors Turkey’s secular identity; in 1977 a massacre claimed the lives of 40 leftists during a May Day rally. While court battles were being fought over the reconstruction plans — part of a much larger project to transform and modernize Istanbul’s skyline and infrastructure — Mr. Erdogan announced plans to tear down a Taksim landmark dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and build a mosque in its place.
The seeming indifference to public sentiment outraged many Turks and swelled the ranks of the protests. Demonstrations broke out across the country, many of which turned violent. The Turkish Medical Association reported that as of Tuesday 4,177 demonstrators had been injured in clashes with riot police — many of the injuries the result of the authorities’ heavy-handed response with water cannons and tear gas. The association also said that three people had died. A Turkish human rights group has claimed that more than 3,000 people have been arrested nationwide, although most of them have been released.
In an attempt to defuse the tensions, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Tuesday offered an apology for the government crackdown, calling it “wrong and unjust.” He said that in their initial move, the security forces used excessive violence. But his apology did not lead to quieting down of the demonstrations. For his part, Mr. Erodgan is unyielding, dismissing the protesters and claiming that they are working “arm-in-arm with terrorism.”
On Wednesday, representatives of demonstrators met with the deputy prime minister. They demanded that the government drop the redevelopment plan and release detained demonstrators. It was not immediately known how Mr. Arinc responded. The representatives also met with President Abdullah Gul.
At a subsequent news conference, the representatives of demonstrators said that they had demanded that the government ensure the freedom to demonstrate in public places and launch an investigation into the security forces’ violence, that the security forces stop using tear gas, and that the governors and police chiefs be punished in cities where demonstrators had died.
The focal point is to what extent the government will show a conciliatory attitude to protesters. It was not immediately clear whether the government will take steps that will satisfy protesters and lead to ending of demonstrations. If the political unrest in Turkey continues, it may negatively affect Turkey’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Istanbul.
The demonstrators reflect a wide variety of political backgrounds. While there is some concern about creeping “Islamization” that is evident in recent legislation, what alarms truly and unites the protesters is the fear that the prime minister’s “majoritarian authoritarianism” reflects impatience with dissent and a rejection of the tolerance that is the hallmark of modern democracy.
The developments in Turkey are troubling for many reasons. First, and perhaps most significantly, Mr. Erdogan was the poster child for the successful integration of Islam and a modern and growing democracy. He was the model for other Islamic movements worldwide, a demonstration that secular societies did not have to fear the rise of political Islam, and that such movements could maintain their core beliefs within a Western polity.
Second, and more strategically, a stable and progressive Turkey played a critical role in building bridges between the West and Islamic countries of the Middle East. Mr. Erdogan had a special credibility when he reached out to Israel. That rapprochement was temporarily derailed a few years ago when Israeli forces stopped a vessel taking relief supplies to the Gaza Strip, killing nine Turkish human rights activists onboard. That rift has since been bridged. Turkey also plays an outsized role supporting rebels fighting Syrian President Bashir Assad, a policy that is deeply unpopular in Turkey.
Mr. Erdogan must remember the principles that got him elected over a decade ago and decide how wedded he is to Turkey’s democratic and secular roots.
While he continues to be the most popular politician in Turkey, he must acknowledge the limits of his power and affirm the key elements of the modern Turkish state.