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Explainer: What is going on in Turkey?

After five days of protests, two dead and now strike action by public sector workers, TheJournal.ie explores just what is happening in the country of 75 million people.

Image: Associated Press

FOR THE PAST five days Turkey has been gripped by protests and now all-out strike by public sector workers amid growing discontent with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The protests have grown from initial unhappiness with a plan to redevelop an urban park in Istanbul to a wider protest against what some see as the increasing desecularisation of Turkey by the current regime.

TheJournal.ie looks at the reasons for the current protests, the background and what’s likely to happen in the coming days and months.

So, what’s going on in Turkey?

Two people are dead and public sector workers are on strike as there have now been five days of protests and clashes with police and security services in the main cities of Istanbul and Ankara. Unrest has also broken out in dozens of towns and cities across the country.

How did all this start?

Last week demonstrators camped out in Istanbul’s Taksim Square protesting against plans to rip up trees in nearby Gezi Park and redevelop the area. The protesters claimed that the plans to rebuild an old Ottoman era military barracks and develop a new shopping mall or museum were going ahead without debate about how to use one of the last remaining public parks in a city that has seen rapid growth in recent years.

Last Friday, the protesters were cleared in a pre-dawn raid that was notable for the reported heavy-handedness of security services who are said to have set fire to tents and showered protesters with pepper spray and tear gas. Unrest quickly spread to other cities across the country in response to the violent clashes.


This can’t have just been about a park?

No, the protests represent what is seen as growing discontent among some Turks with the regime of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has been in power for eleven years now. Erdogan is viewed as an authoritarian figure trying to exert his Islamic beliefs and those of his party on Turkish law and society.

For example, the government recently passed measures to limit the sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am and banned all alcohol advertising and promotion with shops and bars prevented from opening within 100 metres of schools and mosques.

Not unreasonable, what’s the big deal?

Taken on its own, it’s probably not – but it is an affront to many Turks who believe that their country, a republic, is a secular democracy. Although the majority of Turkish citizens are Muslims the country has a tradition of secularism dating back to its first president Kemal Ataturk who transformed the former Ottoman empire into a modern, secular state on which modern-day Turkey was built.

And Erdogan has been undermining these traditions?

Yes in the eyes of some. Along with the alcohol restrictions we’ve already mentioned Erdogan (below) is suspected of chipping away at the ideals of Kemalism, as it is known, by playing an increasing role in individual Turks’ lives.

Some have hit out at him opposing Ceasarean births, telling women to have at least three children, advising TV characters how to behave and, bizarrely, declaring that the “era of white bread is over,” and that Turks should eat whole grain instead, according to a recent New York Times piece.

Other issues which have arisen in recent years are a crackdown on media freedom and a weakening of the power of the military.

What does he say?

He says that he respects all Turks and is a "servant" of the people. He might also point out that he has been re-elected in three landslide elections and that he has overseen a period of economic growth and expansion in Turkey - the economy grew by 5 per cent a year on average between 2002 and 2012 - and continued the steps to allow Turkey to join the European Union.

He say the protests have been stirred up by opposition parties and extremists who are trying to force their will on the majority who backs him. As if to underline that he is not too fussed by the whole affair he has gone ahead with a four-day tour of North African and dismissed Twitter - which activists have been using to spread news and information about the protests - as a "menace".

Yet, the people are not happy...

No, certainly not all of them. From what we have seen most of the protesters are urban, secular Turks frustrated by these latest attempts to tear-up already limited green space in Istanbul but also the increasing Islamisation of Turkey.

Protesters are also angry at authorities heavy crack down with water cannons and tear gas used. Turkey's Human Rights Foundation says that more than a thousand protesters have been subjected to "ill-treatment and torture" by police in recent days.


Could the protesters not rally behind some sort of political movement?

This is not as easy as it might be in other democracies. Novelist Elif Shafak writes on The Guardian that Turkey lacks "a solid, sophisticated opposition party" with the main Republic People's party "visibly melting".

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One possible political alternative could lie in the intervention of the current president Abdullah Gul (below), a former ally of Erdogan who was prime minister for a year before ceding power to Erodgan in 2003. In what is perceived by the BBC to be a widening gulf between the two, Gul said this week: "Democracy does not mean elections alone."

Erdogan is attempting to implement a US-style system of governance where the president hold powers - it is currently a ceremonial role - and could yet run against Gul in next year's elections.

If that were the case the people out on the streets at the moment are unlikely to cast their vote for Erdogan and could rally behind Gul.


Cards on the table then, is a revolution in the offing?

Most likely not. One must not confuse the protest of the urban, secular classes with widespread discontent with Erdogan. Though unpopular among many he retains the support of conservatives and those who lean right in the country.  Many have taken issue with the vandalism and destruction caused by protesters in their anger at police mistreatment.

A so-called silent majority continues to back Erdogan who is tipped to run for the presidency next year - his term as prime minister is limited - and he himself has pointed out that ultimately a 'Turkish Spring' already exists in the country.

"We already have a spring in Turkey," he is quoted by Associated Press as saying earlier this week referring to the country's elections which are recognised as being free and fair.

Pics: Associated Press

Read: Two dead in government crackdown as Turkish union calls two-day strike

Read: Turkish PM maintains hard stance as protests enter fourth day

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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