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Turkish protesters challenge authoritarian rule, Islamic law

How Gezi Park became the flashpoint for years of apprehension about government overreach under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.
Turkey Ankara demonstrations June 2013Enlarge
A Turkish demonstrator is dozed by a police water cannon during clashes on Kizilay square in Ankara on June 5, 2013. Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds who joined mass demonstrations against the Islamic-rooted government. The latest violence in days of angry protests erupted after thousands of union workers filled the central Kizilay square in the Turkish capital, urging Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign. ( Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Striking workers flooded into Istanbul's Taksim Square on day six of protests Wednesday as unions helped lead a major action in the capital of Ankara. Taksim demonstrators issued a list of six demands to the government, hoping that the involvement of hundreds of thousands of strikers across the country would apply pressure to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip and the government.

Throughout the week, protesters have squared off against police forces clad in riot gear, navigating streams of tear gas and water cannons — in some cases razing pavement to build barricades from the stones.

The protest began on May 28 as a peaceful demonstration against plans to clear out Gezi Park, one of the city’s last remaining green grounds, in order to build a shopping mall modeled after 19th-century Ottoman barracks. It then escalated into a violent nationwide clash between the people and the government, revealing to the world an arborization of tensions with Erdogan at the center.

Protesters say the Turkish government, under the control of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, is becoming increasingly authoritarian, “trying to impose conservative Islamic values on the officially secular country and infringe on their personal freedoms,” the BBC reported. Protesters are now calling on Erdogan and his government to resign.

The demands released by activists in Gezi Park were as follows: "Gezi remains park; Stop police violence; Officials resign; Tear gas ban; Release detainees; Freedom of assembly."

Some experts say the violent eruption should be no surprise, and that Washington “overlooked” the fault lines growing in the political “Turkish miracle.”

Turkish restlessness over the recent direction of the country’s politics has gradually intensified as the AKP has “slowly strangled all opposition,” and “become the textbook case of a hollow democracy,” said a Foreign Policy article co-authored by Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow, both experts on the region.

In the last decade of rule, Erdogan successfully expanded education, health and housing, and has helped to boost Turkey into a regional power — advancements which allowed him to win three consecutive general elections, with a higher percentage of the popular vote each time. He took more than 47 percent of the vote in his last two elections, the first times it has been accomplished in any Turkish election. Through the uprising, Turkish officials are asking how a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote can be authoritarian.

Experts say social apprehension began with Erdogan and the AKP trying to replace the Turkish Constitution of 1982 with a newly drafted constitution, which Cook and Koplow say Erdogan wants to use as a vehicle for his own authoritarian rule. Opposition parties held the constitutional commission to a deadlock in late 2012, forcing it to miss the deadline to submit recommendations. Erdogan then threatened to discount the commission altogether and move forward with his own plan.

Coercive measures to quell dissent in Turkey include frequent arrests of journalists, penalization of companies for disagreeing with the government and curtailing of public freedom of expression.

Secular protests began in 2007, pressuring Erdogan not to run in presidential elections because of his Islamist background. In 2008 parliament approved constitutional amendments to allow women to wear headscarves in universities, inciting even more secular outrage. In 2010, a referendum backing amendments to increase parliamentary control over the military and judiciary were seen as an “attempt by the pro-Islamic government to appoint sympathetic judges.”

Turkey’s new alcohol law restricts the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m., limits advertising and bans new liquor licenses from any establishments within 100 meters of mosques and schools.

Opposition of the legislation notwithstanding, the law was written, debated and passed in only two weeks, with Erdogan telling critics they should just drink at home. Cook and Koplow wrote the AKP is also “undertaking massive construction of projects in Istanbul… all of which are controversial and opposed by widespread coalitions of diverse interests.”

On Saturday, Erdogan warned protesters to end their demonstrations in Gezi Park.

“If you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million,” he boasted.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/rights/turkish-protesters-fear-authoritarian-rule-islamic-law