ISTANBUL, Turkey — With swagger and grand designs, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power more than a decade ago, heralding a new Islamist-based democracy he envisioned as a model for a Muslim world caught in the grip of autocrats, kings and despots.
But more than two weeks of protest against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule have brought a reckoning to a leader who, despite his political astuteness, has miscalculated the fervor from a large part of an electorate opposed to the creeping religious conservatism of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Erdogan is still very much in control, and few would venture that the crisis will bring him down, but the protests have hurt him politically and exposed misgivings within his party. Tear gas and water cannons have damaged Turkey’s international image, upsetting the stock market and giving investors pause at a time when the once hyper-speed economy has slowed to about 3% annual growth.
The unrest also suggests that his blend of Islam and democracy is too restrictive for secularists, artists, activists and even working-class mothers who have turned out in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Like Egypt’s Tahrir Square two years ago, it has been transformed into an iconic, scorched patch of rebellion.
“Erdogan’s vulnerability now is the secular middle classes that have risen against AKP governance. And that genie will not go back into the bottle,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a new dynamic in Turkish politics and this will challenge him on his urban renewal and foreign policy programs. So far, he has had an easy ride.”
But the crisis is “not defining in the sense that Erdogan and the AKP will lose elections or that there will be a fundamental shift in the balance of power,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “There is no obvious take away from these protests of the sort we saw in Egypt and Tunisia.”
He said, however, that demonstrations “put a real wrench in Erdogan’s plans in revising the constitution and perhaps plans to run for the presidency.”
But Erdogan has a sizable base and can point to leading Turkey through 10 years of economic growth and political stability even as his government, at times quietly, persecuted journalists, human rights activists and others. Yet many question his support of rebels seeking to overthrow the government in neighboring Syria and his social policies that include a push to restrict alcohol sales.
Erdogan on Wednesday met with some demonstrators to try to ease the tension. But the movement’s key activists were not invited. Turkish media reported that more than 1,000 lawyers rallied outside a courthouse to criticize the arrest of about 50 of their colleagues a day earlier. By nightfall, protesters were gathering in Gezi Park, which adjoins the Taksim, as police forces mobilized after Erdogan promised protests would end within 24 hours.
Doctors said at least 2,500 people were injured — including 130 shot by plastic bullets — Tuesday when police stormed the square and forced out protesters amid exchanges of tear gas and Molotov cocktails. The demonstrations, which began last month over Erdogan’s plans to develop Gezi Park, have erupted into one of the most serious crises of his career.
“I am hopeful that we will surmount this through democratic maturity,” President Abdullah Gul told reporters. “If they have objections, we need to hear them, enter into a dialogue. It is our duty to lend them an ear.”
Turkish news reports said Wednesday night that an AKP official said the government might consider holding a referendum on development in the park. Such a move would mark Erdogan’s most significant gesture to defuse the crisis.
The prime minister has offered to scrap a proposed shopping center in the park but he plans to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks and possibly a mosque and opera house. Many Turks also have been infuriated by Erdogan’s naming of a new bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul after an Ottoman sultan accused by the nation’s Alevi minority of massacring many of its sect.
But Erdogan appears aloof to the wider passions of those against him, many of them young and without political allegiances. Erdogan, who sold sesame buns as a boy on Istanbul’s tough streets and as a politician outflanked Turkey’s powerful military, has called the protesters “bums” and unleashed police violence against them.
“What is most worrying for me though is the way both Erdogan, his government and his supporters have interpreted the protests: A conspiracy orchestrated by ‘dark powers that want to halt Turkey’s progress,’” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist, wrote in Hurriyet Daily News. “In the pro-Erdogan media, this conspiratorial interpretation of the events has been taken to new, and more absurd, levels.”
Similar conspiracy theories were voiced by falling autocrats during the Arab uprisings two years ago. Erdogan vilified those leaders for suppressing civil freedoms but he has acted like them in countering his own opposition. His style and his determination to stay in power have drawn comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who over the years has switched job titles but has remained his country’s ultimate authority.
“Erdogan has ambitions of continuing his domination of Turkish politics by ‘pulling a Putin’ and engineering a transition to a presidential system that he would head,” said Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkey in the department of history at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
“Resistance within the party to this is likely to be much higher after his bumbling performance this past two weeks,” he said. “In particular, the crackdown seems to be exacerbating the fracture between him and the wing of the party associated” with the Islamist movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Muslim intellectual who lives in Pennsylvania and advocates religious tolerance.
Erdogan’s moderate and conservative Islamist supporters, especially those in the provinces, do not want his religious agenda and echoes of Ottoman grandeur to be jeopardized by an uproar from liberal sectors.
“He might lose the battle but win the war,” said Cagaptay. “Half of Turks still support the AKP, and he can consolidate this base to be united against liberals.... He can bring the AKP camps together.”
But — as has been apparent in Taksim Square over the last two weeks — Turkey is in the midst of a collision of ideals that so far Erdogan has been unable to calm.
“I feel like I am in a horror movie,” said Havva Dogan, who picked up cigarette butts and rubbish in Gezi Park early Wednesday afternoon, cheap rubber gloves on her hands, a gas mask hanging from her neck. “Erdogan is a dictator. He is not only showing his power, but he’s sending us a message: You have no rights.”
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Johnson from Istanbul.