In Turkey, a solution to a two-week-long standoff between the government and a protest coalition may be in the offing after Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdoğan decided to respect the rule of law.
“Turkey is a state of law and it is impossible for the executive branch to perform an unlawful act,” a smiling government spokesperson, Hüseyin Çelik, told a phalanx of waiting media members in the early hours of June 14. The announcement capped dramatic all-night talks involving Erdoğan and leaders of a protest movement against government plans to re-develop Gezi Park, one of the last oases of green in heavily congested central Istanbul.
The trouble began when a peaceful sit-in by a handful of protestors was violently crushed by scores of riot police using tear gas. Such was the ferocity of the police crackdown that it sparked a nationwide outburst of discontent, with sympathy protests taking place in 58 of the country’s 90 cities, according to Interior Minister Muammer Güler. So far, five people have died in the violence, and more than 5,000 injured.
The crackdown “was the last drop that over spilled the glass,” said 20-year-old business student Ahmet, who had joined the protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a site with heavy secular symbolism. The protests quickly merged with growing unease among Turkey’s heretofore largely apolitical middle class about the pious prime minister’s increasingly conservative policy agenda.
But Prime Minister Erdoğan, known as the “bulldozer” of Turkish politics, stubbornly believed he was facing a conspiracy of unnamed “foreign powers” and “coup plotters.”Until the morning of June 13, he promised he would crush the uprising. “I will clean out Gezi Park of these unlawful low-lives and terrorists,” he vowed in a 90-minute speech to officials from his Justice and Development Party in Ankara. And, he said, the job would be done within 24 hours.
The country held its breath and prepared for the unknown. In Gezi Park, thousands of people gathered and braced for a showdown, as riot police slowly built up their numbers in the surrounding streets and the adjacent Taksim Square.
But at 7:45 pm, the prime minister blinked, and, in a dramatic and unexpected move, summoned to his residence in Ankara the leaders of the protest along with celebrities who had expressed public support for the protest’s goals.
As evening turned to night, the situation became increasingly surreal. A carnival-like mood swept over Taksim Square and Gezi Park, featuring a live music performance and folk dances. Even a group of mothers turned up to support their children; an answer to the prime minister’s demand earlier in the day that parents of the protestors “take their children away.”
Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, who, earlier in the week, had promised that all steps would be taken to end the supposed terror threat posed by Occupy Gezi movement, tweeted an invite to protestors to meet him in the gardens of the city’s historic Dolmabahçe Palace for a midnight chat. Many took him up on the offer.
A grand piano was carted into Taksim Square and German concert pianist Davide Martello and other performers entertained the protestors. Just behind them, bemused lines of riot police looked on, with the engines of their armored cars running, ready to act at a moment’s notice if the call came from Ankara.
But that call never came. Making a rare political U-turn, the prime minister agreed to abide by a court injunction blocking the redevelopment of the park; the same court he had earlier dismissed as biased and irrelevant. A commitment was also given that if a later court decision would go in his favor, a plebiscite would be held in Istanbul on the development plans.
The prime minister’s “comments that the project will not be executed until the judiciary makes its decision is tonight's positive result,” declared Tayfun Kahraman of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, an umbrella protest group, after meeting with Erdoğan.
It is still far from clear whether the protestors will think the government’s gesture is enough. While some on Twitter rejoiced at what they believe is a display of people-power, others mocked what they saw as the powerful prime minister condescending to recognize the rule of law.
Taksim Solidarity is now engaged in discussions with myriad different groups involved in the Istanbul protest. But the government appears to have stepped back for now from its threat to crush the Gezi Park protest.
The events of the past two weeks are still being digested, but a question is already being asked; why did it take the worst civil unrest since the 1970s for the prime minister to recognize the supremacy of the country’s courts? For now, there is no immediate answer.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.