Istanbul Unrest Highlights Erdogan’s Authoritarian Approach

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Though the recent street protests in Istanbul were sparked off by plans to convert one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul – Gezi Park, which adjoins Taksim Square – into a shopping mall, the brutal police reaction has resulted in escalating civil unrest becoming a cause around which anyone with a grievance against the current government can rally. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invincibility in the polls since his Justice and Development Party, the AKP, first ran for election in 2002 has resulted in an increasingly authoritarian and narcissistic approach which has recently seen the passing of legislation regarding alcohol sales and abortion as well as an attempt to establish a new constitution that would allow Mr Erdogan to stay in power until 2024. Opposition is deeply divided between nationalists, secularists and Kurds and these demonstrations are the first time in eleven years that the political opposition have felt vindicated in taking to the streets.

Two protesters and one police officer have been killed so far in the civil unrest that Mr Erdogan has described as “lawless”. Certainly there has been widespread vandalism, including the tearing up of paving stones to use as missiles and for road blocks in a manner reminiscent of Parisians protesting against Charles de Gaulle in 1968, but the over-zealousness of the police has shocked many observers due to their indiscriminate use of tear-gas and water-cannons.

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In contrast to Mr Erdogan’s bullishness, the President, Abdullah Gul, described the protesters as “civilised” and, according to the Financial Times, it was after a meeting with Mr Gul that deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly apologised for the police’s violent tactics.

But the police and government’s reactions to the protests have been a timely reminder of the fact that Turkey is essentially an authoritarian state. The democratic process has failed to produce a viable opposition party to run against the AKP for over a decade, while the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently reported that Turkey jailed more journalists in 2012 than any other nation in the world.

 There has also been a distinct lack of coverage of the protests in Turkey’s mainstream media, resulting in widespread ridicule of the tightly intertwined relationships between the state’s business interests and the media companies choosing not to report on the protests. The media blackout has resulted in much of the population searching online for information. The hashtags #GeziPark and #OccupyGezi have been awash with the exchange of images, videos and links.

Meanwhile the use of VPNs – virtual private networks, which conceal one’s IP address – has increased at such a rate in Turkey that Anonymous made a plea on their twitter page for people to only use them if in dire need of secure anonymity due to the fact that many of such VPNs were crashing due to over-use. According to the website vocative.com, a Turkish group called Red Hack have gained access to the Istanbul police department and plan to release contact details for all of the police working in the precinct near to Gezi Park in retribution for their brutality.

But Mr Erdogan has vowed to press ahead with the controversial redevelopment plans. On Friday he spoke of international “threats and conspiracies” against Turkey’s economy, claiming that the demonstrations were “another movement against our government by the interest rate lobby.” On Thursday the New York Times published an advert in support of the protesters.

By Frank Burbage

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