Turkey’s leader may consider referendum on park development

Protesters gather in Taksim Square, Istanbul, after a police crackdown.
(Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images)

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkey’s leader might consider holding a referendum on plans for development in an Istanbul park that sparked nationwide protests against his government, according to media reports Wednesday.

Such a move would mark Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most significant gesture to defuse the crisis, which began as a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park two weeks ago, but quickly escalated in response to a police crackdown.

Erdogan has offered to scrap a proposed shopping center in the park but still plans to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks and possibly a mosque and opera house.


Wednesday’s announcement by an official with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party came after a night of chaos as police swept through the area, firing tear gas and water cannons at protesters occupying Gezi Park and adjoining Taksim Square.

Doctors said at least 2,500 people were injured Tuesday, including 130 shot by plastic bullets.

“This was the most severe attack the police have launched yet, worse than the initial attack on protesters,” said Ozdemir Aktan, chairman of the Turkish Medical Assn.

Erdogan met Wednesday with 11 activists in the Turkish capital, Ankara, to try to ease tensions, according to local media reports.

“The prime minister said that since we want to know what the people think, we can bring the option of a referendum to the concerned bodies,” ruling party spokesman Huseyin Celik was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet Daily News.

But the talks, which were attended by a group of academics, artists and students, were denounced by other protesters. Taksim Solidarity, one of the largest factions in Gezi Park, said none of its representatives were invited to the meeting, local media reported.


“It’s a show; it’s theater,” said Alperen Cetin, who was among hundreds of protesters who continued to rally in the park Wednesday. “Erdogan just wants to tell the public that he listened to the demands, exhausted all options, before he attacks the park.”

Police were heavily deployed in Taksim Square late Wednesday, but made no immediate move to clear the area.

Despite repeated reassurances that protesters would not be harmed, police three times entered the square on Tuesday, charging the crowd and destroying several tents on the fringes of the park while clashing with a small group of demonstrators hurling Molotov cocktails and aiming fireworks at them.

Late into the night, riot police and plainclothes officers stalked the narrow alleys running through central Istanbul.

The violence was immediately condemned by rights groups and could scuttle any attempts to find a negotiated end to the impasse in Gezi Park.

“The Turkish government’s decision to send riot police into Taksim Square and to tear gas tens of thousands of peaceful protesters has all but destroyed efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between the government and protesters,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday.


The government defended its democratic credentials Wednesday.

“Everybody should know that Turkey is undoubtedly an open society where democratic rights are under the guarantee of laws, and all should respect that,” President Abdullah Gul said.

But many of the demonstrators -- mostly middle class youths who represent a strong secular current in the country and object to what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarianism and his party’s increasing adherence to Islamic strictures -- said they are just waiting for the police to attack.

Havva Dogan, who was picking up trash and cigarette butts in the park early Wednesday afternoon, a gas mask hanging from her neck, said she was scared.

“I cannot believe anything my government tells me,” she said. “Maybe the police will come tonight, maybe tomorrow. All we can do is wait.”


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