LONDON — The continuing demonstrations in Turkey started as a protest against plans to develop a popular square in Istanbul that is a symbol of Turkey’s commitment to secularism. But analysts say the protests have expanded to cover a variety of other issues, including frustration with the ruling party’s attitude toward large segments of the population that do not support it.
The protests have been focused on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, sparked by a government-backed development plan. But analysts say that’s not what it’s about anymore.
“The real agenda behind the protests is to say to the government, ‘Look, enough is enough'," said Gül Berna Özcan, a Turkey expert at Royal Holloway University of London. She said secular Turks feel angry and helpless.
“The key issue is that the AK Party missed a great opportunity. It could have proven to its skeptics in Turkey and elsewhere in the world that they respect democracy, and democracy and Islam could coexist and enhance each other," she said.
The AK Party is the Islamist-inspired movement of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power for 10 years and was re-elected two years ago with 50 percent of the vote - a huge margin by European standards. It is his residence that protesters have put under siege, angry about policies that restrict the availability of alcohol, ban public displays of affection and intimidate the press, among other things.
Senior lecturer Bill Park of London’s King’s College said, “What you have here is what some people in Turkey call ‘the other 50 percent’ - that is, the 50 percent that don’t vote for the ruling party, that are now expressing a wider frustration.”
And the frustration is being expressed across the country, reflecting concern about a slide toward Islamism and what analysts call a lack of concern the government shows for the roughly half of the country that remains staunchly secular.
Prime Minister Erdogan fueled that feeling Monday, leaving as scheduled for a North Africa trip starting in Morocco, and dismissing the protesters as “naïve” and “emotional,” and manipulated by “extremist elements.”
Erdogan predicted the protests will be over by the time he returns in a few days.
Analysts are not so sure.
“It’s not so much that it’s a battle for the soul of Turkey, but there are two souls in competition. And the real challenge here, I think, is how, whoever is in power in Turkey, Turkey finds ways to be politically more inclusive," said Park.
The experts say there is something of a tradition of intolerance for the opposition in Turkey, regardless of who is in power. But continuing protests will not help the prime minister’s desire to change the constitution and increase his own power, nor Turkey’s effort to join the European Union. Professor Park says the best hope is that people around the prime minister convince him to end the polarization and address his opponents’ concerns in a constructive way.