Monday, 3 June 2013

Violent protests continue in Istanbul and Ankara

Protesters clashed with police for a third day as anti-government demonstrations were held in Istanbul and Ankara, June 3. The demonstrators, who have been protesting the demolition of Taksim Square park since just before the weekend, have been calling for the resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Riot police clash with demonstrators in Turkey - (AP Photo)
The demonstrations began in Turkey a few days ago after the government released plans to demolish a park near the Taksim Square. In place of the park on the European side of the Bosphorus, which is one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul, a large shopping mall is being proposed. A small number of environmentalists gathered outside the square to blockade the destruction. The problem, according to information released from the protesters, was both the destruction of the green space and the architecture of the planned buildings, which were said to resemble Ottoman-era barracks.

On May 30 the protests turned violent as police broke up the sit-in which had swelled to over 100 people. The following day the protesters were joined by another group apparently representing the main political opposition party, the secular Republican People's Party (known as CHP). After the new crowd gathered even more protesters, the movement suddenly shifted from an environmental protest to calling for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's resignation. The protests grew quickly to over 10,000 people on June 1 and also turned violent as protesters threw Molotov cocktails and stones at police lines. 

Turkish police have used tear gas and water cannons to control the crowds, but pulled back on June 1 to various strategic choke points to allow the protesters to gather and avoid provoking more unrest. Heavy rains also kept fresh protesters from travelling to the square on June 1.

But clashes resumed between protesters and police on June 2. Over 1000 people have reportedly been detained in Istanbul and Ankara, where the major riots are occurring, with dozens of photos showing injuries. A list of grievances against Mr Erdogan’s political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), are being cited for the current unrest. These include the growing Islamic tendencies of the ruling party and Ankara’s overt assistance to Syrian rebels. 

Despite the blackout on any reporting of the May bombings, many Turks are blaming the recent suicide bombings near the Syrian border on the Syrian government. But they also recognise that Damascus would have no reason to order the bombings if Ankara had kept clear of the conflict in Syria. Many of the protesters are pointing at Ankara as equally responsible for the bombings which killed over 50 people.

Mr Erdogan probably does not face an existential crisis with this fresh unrest. This is because so far the protests have not spread to regions where the AKP enjoys majority support. The violent events are isolated to a handful of areas in the larger, more cosmopolitan cities of Istanbul and Ankara. Although there are reports of limited unrest in regions such as Izmir, Eskisehir, Mugla, Yalova, Antalya, Bolu, Adana, Ankara, Kayseri and Konya. The protesters are relatively young and are leveraging the internet to communicate and facilitate organisation. Social networking sites, in a similar pattern to events throughout the Arab world, have makeshift digital groups where people are monitoring the protests in almost real-time as updates are posted.

The ruling AKP has responded to the protests by remaining firm on the construction plans for Taksim Square, and Mr Erdogan has promised to look into allegations of police brutality. It is clear that Mr Erdogan’s Islamist preferences are striking a nerve in the secular country. The Prime Minister is looking to run for President in 2014 and expects a sufficient support base to propel him into this position. However, if the protests cannot be quelled and continue to spiral into more violence, the effects could bring enough people away from supporting the AKP to change the political environment in Turkey.

Turks, especially young Turks, are worried that Mr Erdogan’s government is becoming increasingly unresponsive and authoritarian. The opposition is critical of the AKP and worries they are too powerful, but they do not yet have a sufficient alternative to the ruling party. This present pattern of riots does not yet threaten the AKP’s support base, which is spread wide throughout rural Anatolia and is apparently stalwart.

It is important to watch how Syria responds to the unrest in Turkey. Damascus could choose to exacerbate the unrest in Turkey. Already Syrian President Bashar al Assad has warned international travellers from visiting Turkey. Given Turkey’s recent history in helping Syrian rebels, Damascus may feel that keeping Ankara’s attention focused on its domestic problems is a prudent use of its own dwindling resources. For this reason, there is a possibility of attacks inside Turkey in the following weeks. Areas which could be threatened might be closer to the Syrian border, but could also occur in larger towns like Istanbul and Ankara where current protests are on-going. 

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