Whatever points, if any, the protests in Turkey share with the Arab Spring, there is one that cannot now be contested: the intemperate response of a political leader who has found his power unexpectedly called into question. It is understandable that the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saw the continued occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the city’s transport hub, Taksim Square, as an infuriating and very visible challenge to his authority. Understandable, too, that he might see the disruption as discouraging investors and a potential threat to the country’s economy. But to try to end the protests in so high-handed a way was as unwise as it was reprehensible.
It had been possible to believe that Turkey’s top leaders were playing “good cop, bad cop”, with Mr Erdogan expressing impatience with the demonstrators and his more conciliatory deputy apologising for police excesses. The moment Mr Erdogan returned from Tunisia, however, that double-act – if there was one – came to an end. There was a brief flicker of hope with the announcement that the Prime Minister would receive leaders of the protest today. Today’s assault on Taksim Square, however, casts doubt not just on the feasibility of such a meeting – will the protest leaders turn up? – but on Mr Erdogan’s good faith in calling it.
Even if the meeting happens, this new show of force is bound to sour the atmosphere. But it also underlines the distance that exists between the protesters and their supporters across the country and those in power. Mr Erdogan may head a democratically elected government, and enjoy a healthy approval rating, but the protests exposed a depth of division and discontent that any government, however secure its mandate, needs to take into account.
Mr Erdogan’s decision, as he put it, to play rough may bring him a boost among his supporters, but it can only be short-lived. Nor is his talk of an environmental protest movement “hijacked” by Turkey’s enemies at all helpful. Playing rough and casting opponents as “enemies of the people” are standard defence mechanisms of beleaguered leaders, and they have a habit of rebounding. Shored up by a loyal political base, Mr Erdogan has been reluctant to take seriously the protests that began in Istanbul. This is a mistake he may come to rue.