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Turkey PM suggests referendum to end Istanbul park protest

Erdogan says he is considering holding a referendum on plans to redevelop an Istanbul park that have sparked nationwide protests, in his first major concession in nearly two weeks of anti-government unrest.

Image: Burhan Ozbilici/AP/Press Association Images

TURKISH PRIME MINISTER Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday said he would consider holding a referendum on plans to redevelop an Istanbul park that have sparked nationwide protests, in his first major concession in nearly two weeks of anti-government unrest.

The gesture came as thousands gathered in the city’s Taksim Square, next to Gezi Park, for a 13th evening of demonstrations. The mood was subdued and peaceful, in stark contrast to the previous night when protesters fought running battles with riot police.

“We might put it to a referendum…. In democracies only the will of the people counts,” said Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after talks between Erdogan and protest leaders. “We think that after this gesture of goodwill people will decide to go home.”

A campaign to save Gezi Park’s trees from being razed to make way for a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks was met with a heavy-handed police response on May 31. The crackdown sparked a countrywide outpouring of anger against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Hundreds have since been camping out in Gezi Park, the symbolic heart of the protest movement.

Police have not interfered with the tent city that has sprung up there, but on Tuesday they stormed Taksim Square, firing tear gas and water cannon at tens of thousands of demonstrators, some of whom hurled back fireworks and molotov cocktails.

Erdogan has faced international condemnation over his handling of the crisis, which has left four dead and injured nearly 5,000 demonstrators, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.

Erdogan has taken a combative stance against the demos, warning repeatedly that he was running out of patience with the demonstrators, but he held out on olive branch by meeting with some of the protest representatives Wednesday.

The representatives, a loose coalition of environmental campaigners, did not comment on the referendum proposal after the talks. Critics say they do not speak for most of the protesters and were cherry-picked for the meeting with the premier.

Meanwhile, riot police backed by armoured water cannon trucks looked on as demonstrators gathered peacefully around a piano in Taksim Square for a live concert, sporadically chanting: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!”

Earlier in the day, thousands of lawyers took to the streets in Istanbul and the capital Ankara in protest at the brief detention of over 70 colleagues Tuesday after they objected to the police violently reclaiming Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since June 1.

‘Democratic maturity’

While expectations were low for a quick resolution to the conflict, President Abdullah Gul said Erdogan’s meeting with demonstrators was a sign of the country’s “democratic maturity”.

“People take to the streets here like in the most developed countries in Europe,” he said, adding that he was confident Turkey would “overcome the trouble”.

The mood in Gezi Park was anxious on Wednesday, some protesters having abandoned their tents after clouds of acrid smoke drifted in from Taksim the night before.

Istanbul’s governor took to Twitter to reassure park protesters police would not enter the site.

“But how can you trust the police after last night?” asked Orhan Veli Gulenay, a 28-year-old software developer who has been sleeping in the park.

In a clear sign that police had reclaimed Taksim Square, they hung two massive Turkish flags from a nearby building as well as a large portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, whose image has also been adopted by the protesters.

Confident in his enduring popularity, Erdogan, in power since 2002, has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.

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His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.

The first campaign rallies will be staged in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend and are expected to gather tens of thousands of party faithful.

Turkey, a country of 76 million at the crossroads of East and West, is a key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday urged Erdogan to show “engagement not antagonism” in his dialogue with the protesters.

“This is an important moment for Turkey. A chance for it to renew its commitment to European values,” she said.

Turkey has long aspired to join the EU but efforts have stalled, with concerns over its human rights record a key stumbling block.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said images of demonstrators being chased down by riot police in Istanbul were “disturbing” and sent the “wrong message” to EU nations.

- © AFP, 2013

Read: EU warns Turkey: ‘Your membership is in jeopardy over protests’
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Read: Day before Turkish protesters to meet with PM, riot police retake Istanbul square

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