Two years after easily winning a third election in a country sometimes held up by U.S. administrations as a model of Islamic democracy, Erdogan is facing the most challenging anti-government protests in a decade of rule by his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The spark was relatively minor – a small sit-in protest last Tuesday by environmentalists opposed to plans to replace a tree-lined public park alongside Istanbul’s Taksim Square with buildings, including a shopping mall. But a police response viewed as heavy-handed saw it mushroom into something much bigger.
By Sunday, protests had taken place in dozens of cities and towns, with hundreds of injuries reported during clashes with riot police, who used teargas and water cannon. More than 1,700 people had been arrested, according to government officials.
The largest demonstrations were in Taksim Square and elsewhere in Istanbul and in the capital, Ankara, with protesters accusing the government of increasingly authoritarian behavior and chanting for Erdogan to resign. In a show of solidarity, residents have been banging cooking pots and pans on the balconies of apartment buildings in the two cities.
As has become the norm in protests around the world, social media has played a key role in spreading the word. Erdogan in a television interview targeted the micro-blogging site Twitter, calling it “a troublemaker in societies today.” American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar Michael Auslin in a tweet called the anti-Twitter comment “classic paranoia.”
Addressing a historical archive inauguration ceremony in Istanbul on Sunday afternoon Erdogan sounded personally affronted, focusing attention on acts of vandalism – some protesters smashed storefronts and torched vehicles on Saturday night – and accusing his political rivals of being behind the protests.
“They are burning, damaging the shops. Is this democracy?” he asked.
The prime minister blamed the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for the unrest and declared that the development at Taksim Square would go ahead, although he also flagged the idea of a museum and a mosque being built on the site.
“We don’t need the CHP’s permission,” he said. “We already have the permission of those who voted for us.”
That comment reflects the divide in Turkish society. Although the AKP sailed to a third-term victory in June 2011 with 49.9 percent of the vote, the election also saw the CHP receive its best result in three decades, 25.9 percent.
A Pew poll shortly before the election reaffirmed Erdogan’s personal popularity, but also found opinion deeply split over the direction Turkey was heading. Among more religious Muslims (defined as those who pray five times a day and tend to be AKP supporters) 64 percent said they were satisfied with the state of the country; among those who said they pray rarely, satisfaction levels were halved, 32 percent.
Erdogan’s ambitions include moving Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system and, when his third and last term as prime minister draws to a close, to be elected president. Many younger and more secular-minded Turks worry that the country is gradually becoming more Islamic and less democratic.
Press freedom has declined sharply. Already more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than anywhere else – including the world’s most repressive countries.
Despite Western concerns about some foreign policy shifts under Erdogan’s direction in recent years he has a close relationship with President Obama, who named him as one of a handful of foreign leaders with whom he enjoys “friendships and the bonds of trust.”
On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed concern about reports of protesters being injured in Istanbul but said she was unaware of any direct communication between the State Department and Turkish authorities.
In a brief statement posted on the U.S. Embassy website, Ambassador Francis Ricciardone wished a speedy recovery to those injured in the protests, reiterated the importance of freedom of assembly and the right to peaceful protests, and concluded by stating, “I am not going to say anything further.”
By Sunday, the administration was a little more outspoken.
“Peaceful public demonstrations are a part of democratic expression, and we expect that security forces will exercise restraint and that all parties will continue to work to calm the situation,” said national security council spokeswoman Laura Lucas.
European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton in a statement deplored the use of “excessive force” against demonstrators in Taksim Square and also urged restraint from all sides.
E.U. criticism is particularly sensitive in Turkey, which has been seeking membership for decades and has been involved in formal negotiations to join the bloc since 2005.
Predictably, some analysts raised the “spring” metaphor attached to the wave of political turmoil in the Middle East in recent years.
“Has the ‘Turkish spring’ started?” AEI’s Niklas Anzinger wondered, concluding, “Perhaps, though Erdogan may believe that he can outlast the protesters.”
“As his crackdown intensifies, he risks a Pyrrhic victory, however, confirming to the international audience that the protesters are right in their castigation of his intolerance and autocracy.”
Turkish blogger Mahir Zeynalov headlined an article in the Istanbul daily Zaman “Turkish Spring!” but decided that in the absence of wider participation in protests, that was an overstatement.
“Reading graffiti and slogans on stanbul streets, you can see phrases like ‘Rebellion,’ ‘Resistance,’ ‘Insurgency’ and ‘Revolution,’ ” he wrote. “Unlike other Arab dictators, Erdogan is an elected and popular leader and Turkey is an electoral democracy, making any kind of ‘Turkish Spring’ impossible in Turkey.”
Zalman foreign editor Mustafa Edib Yilmaz agreed, tweeting, “this is not the ‘Turkish Spring’ because it was not winter here.”
“Some compared this to the Arab Spring demonstrations elsewhere in the Middle East though this idea seems exaggerated,” concurred Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel.
“Erdogan is very arrogant, has a strong base of support, and enjoys the full support of the Obama administration. The Turkish economy is generally considered to be strong,” he commented. “Erdogan will have to decide whether to slow down the Islamization process – he has been clever at being patient – or perhaps will, on the contrary, speed it up claiming his regime is facing sabotage.”