“History shows that if nations cannot manage to win all together, they are destined to lose all together,” declared Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the first anniversary of his 2007 re-election. “We defend freedom, justice, democracy and welfare for everybody.”
Back then, he promised that his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, A.K.P., would embrace all sections of society regardless of political affiliation. He even thanked those who didn’t vote for him.
Five years later, Mr. Erdogan is facing growing criticism for disrespecting people’s lifestyles and interfering in their personal choices. His government has drafted and passed bills without public consultation. A law on restricting alcohol sales was passed on May 24 in Parliament via a last-minute amendment.
And then, two weeks later, again without public consultation, he began the demolition of a popular park as part of a controversial urban renewal plan for Taksim Square. The small-scale sit-in opposing the demolition morphed into mass nationwide public demonstrations after the police used excessive force against protesters.
How could a skilled politician as smart and experienced as Mr. Erdogan, who has been able to overcome a number of political crises in the past, including a threatened military coup in 2007, fail to see the bigger political picture?
In the past few days, Mr. Erdogan has claimed that those rallying against him were mobilized by the country’s opposition parties, especially the ultrasecular and ultranationalist bloc led by the Republican People’s Party (C.H.P.). He said the issue was not the park but a concerted political campaign against him by those who opposed his policies on partisan grounds. This was understandable given that his opponents have ignored the A.K.P.’s landmark achievements for the sake of partisanship in the past.
However, a quick look was enough to confirm that the opposition that took over Taksim last weekend was different. It was a largely nonpartisan movement made up of liberals, conservatives, independents and even likely A.K.P. voters. Their cause was later overshadowed by some violent groups, who dealt a serious blow to the public image of the protests through vandalism, looting and attacking women wearing head scarves. Yet the initial sit-in group, as well as those participating in the broader protests that followed, represented a broad cross section of society.
Mr. Erdogan has remained defiant, but there have been critics of his handling of the crisis within his own party. Among them was Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, one of the heavyweights of the A.K.P., who said authorities should have communicated with the protesters instead of tear-gassing them. He also openly praised a local administrative court that issued a stay on the Taksim project amid the continuing protests on Friday. And Turkey’s education minister, Nabi Avci, observed on Monday that the government had done what the secular opposition parties had not been able to achieve for years: within five days, the police crackdown brought together masses who had been incapable of uniting against the government. It even managed to unite the fans of three archrival Istanbul soccer teams, which were engaged in a fierce fight for a championship just a few weeks ago.
The protests are hitting Mr. Erdogan at an inopportune time. He has been campaigning for a constitutional change that would give broad executive powers to the currently ceremonial presidency, raising concerns over how checks and balances in this system will be ensured if he runs for the post before his self-imposed three-term limit expires in 2015. When the demonstrations erupted, he had not yet persuaded the nation to switch to an executive presidential system, but the Turkish public has learned in Mr. Erdogan’s more than 10 years of rule that he sooner or later succeeds in whatever he plans to do.
Now many people, including his supporters, opponents and prominent intellectuals, are voicing concerns over the proposed presidential system. The recent protests are likely to complicate Mr. Erdogan’s calculations for a presidential run, as it may be difficult for him to persuade and eventually garner the support of the crowds he has so far refused to listen to.
In contrast to Mr. Erdogan’s dismissal of the protesters as “plunderers,” the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, struck a different tone on Monday, telling reporters that “democracy is not just about elections” and that the protesters’ “message has been received. What is necessary will be done.” Deputy Prime Minister Arinc also adopted a conciliatory tone and apologized for the excessive use of police force while Mr. Erdogan was traveling abroad on an official visit to Morocco.
Tensions have eased slightly, but nothing will be the same for Turkey after these protests. Although Mr. Erdogan still argues that the majority of the nation is behind him based on his party’s recent internal polls, he would be wise to keep in mind the masses on Istanbul’s streets before making any future decision concerning people’s personal lives.
Mr. Erdogan was shown a yellow card in Istanbul; it is a warning to return to his reformist agenda and to open up channels of communication with all segments of society, including those who didn’t vote for him. Those in the opposition who wish to see him given a red card and ejected from office will have to wait until the next election in 2015 — unless Mr. Erdogan finds a way to ascend to the presidency before then.
Sule Kulu is the online editor of Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey.