Turkey’s leader calms protests -- for now

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The political standoff between antigovernment protesters and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan eased Friday, but the last two weeks of unrest revealed national fissures and a belief by many that their leader will get his way in the end.

Erdogan agreed to halt construction in Istanbul’s Gezi Park – pending a referendum and resolution of outstanding court cases – to avert launching a fresh police crackdown after a spate of violence that left four dead and about 5,000 injured. Many protesters, however, suggested that the prime minister’s political skills would eventually prevail.

“Erdogan did not make any concessions. He will still try to build here,” said Tugce Kurt, a young protester sitting Friday in Gezi Park, the epicenter of protests that swept across Turkey in the last two weeks. “People expect us to be grateful because they didn’t gas us yesterday; that is not a concession.

PHOTOS: Unrest in Turkey continues


“It is a basic democratic right to protest,” she added. “Nothing has changed.”

The country was notably calmer Friday. But analysts said that while the immediate crisis over developing the park with a shopping complex and replicas of Ottoman-era buildings may have been eased, further confrontation probably looms.

“The initial impression of Erdogan is that he is not backing down and seems determined to push the project through,” said Ayse Akalin, an assistant professor of sociology at Istanbul Technical University. “Despite the protesters delivering a clear message, he seems not to have heard it – or is determined to have the ultimate say.”

Critics have long accused Erdogan of authoritarianism and political exclusion. His ability to outmaneuver the opposition and his focused determination made him a formidable leader who scaled back the military’s grip on the country, aggressively pursued Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and oversaw a sustained period of economic growth.

But his increasingly conservative religious politics and his inclination to control even the smallest detail of an issue have also given rise to a new generation of demonstrators, previously politically alienated but now determined to have a say in how their country is run.

“This is the first time Erdogan has seen any really substantial opposition since he came to power,” said Akalin. “I get the sense that we are entering a new stage” in Turkish politics.

The crisis, which began as a small-scale environmental protest, rapidly evolved into a broader display of discontent with Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP -- long viewed in the West as a model of Islamic democracy -- while further highlighting a left-right, secular-Islamic rift.

For demonstrators lounging under trees in the park Friday – their hard hats and gas masks nowhere to be seen now that the threat of police violence has diminished – the question is whether their movement will force a more inclusive approach from Erdogan.

Few believe they’ll be able to amass the numbers to match Erdogan’s significant support base if a referendum on Gezi Park development is held.

PHOTOS: Unrest in Turkey continues

“If it goes to a vote, the AKP will bus all its supporters in and tell them what to vote,” said Kurt.

One of her friends, however, said she thought the protests, which put Turkey uncomfortably in the international spotlight, had made an impact on Erdogan.

“I think he may have softened a little,” said the woman, who asked to be referred to as Sinem. “He was just so insistent that this would go ahead. We have won a small victory, for now he has backed off.”

Emra Okayen, who was sitting nearby smoking a cigarette and sipping a cup of coffee, shook his head.

“He is never going to stop,” he said.


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Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.