Twitter is lighting up with reports of mass protests spreading in major Turkish cities, and apparently increasing use of force by Turkish police and paramilitary forces to break them up. The major confrontation is taking place in Istanbul, with at least two deaths and dozens of injuries reported on Twitter. Pictures of police literally blowing protesters off their feet with water/gas cannons are making the rounds, as well as grainy images of huge bonfires in the middle of the streets. The spark apparently was a protest in central Istanbul against Prime Minister Erdogan’s plans to remove iconic Taksim Square and replace it with another shopping mall. Protests spread to nearby parks and along the pedestrial shopping street, Istiklal. Accuracy of reports about protests in other cities need to be checked.
However, this is certainly the first major protests against Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party in their decade in power. Creeping authoritarian tendencies, such as locking up more reporters than any other country and persecuting the armed forces through treason trials, have removed much overt domestic opposition to the AKP in recent years. If these protests hold, though, it will be a much different force opposing Erdogan, namely a youth-led mass movement.
Erdogan seems to have chosen the Tiananmen Square route, without even trying to appease the peaceful protesters. Tear gas and water cannons are driving back the protestors. Reports of police vehicles being driven into the crowd evoke memories of the Chinese leadership sending in tanks to crush student activists back in 1989. Depending on the number of casualties, the Gezi Park/Taksim Square protests could be a red-letter day for Turkey.
Yet the danger for Erdogan is that he will win a pyrrhic victory. Like the Chinese Communists half a generation ago, his party may wind up stronger for having broken the back of civilian protest. However, that may well come at the cost of legitimacy. The AKP already was suspected by many. Now it will be feared and hated. That may turn businessmen against Erdogan, and reduce his support further to the poorer, eastern parts of Anatolia. The bad news for Turkey is that such an outcome could cause his “mildly Islamist” (in the words of The Economist) tendencies to come out more strongly, given the need to shore up support among the more religious voters that make up his base. That would bring Turkey ever closer to a tipping point to decide between secularism and ideologically driven religious politics.