Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his remarks and gestures against the Gezi Park resistance that became a major social explosion on May 31, is signaling that instead of easing up and reconciling, he has chosen to fight.
The clearest indicator was the speech he made to thousands of his supporters who had come to the airport to welcome him home in the early hours of June 7 after his tour of the Maghreb countries. Erdogan climbed to the top of a bus and addressed his jubilant but angry supporters:
“Police are doing their duty. These protests that have lost their democratic demonstration features, that have become vandalism and are fully against the law must end immediately. … What are they saying? ‘Withdraw the police.’ Then what? This is not a land of free-for-all, it is the state of the Republic of Turkey.”
Erdogan expressed his anger toward some, saying, “Those who call themselves journalists, artists, politicians have displayed the worse hatred, discrimination and provocations in a most irresponsible manner.”
Erdogan’s supporters waving Turkish flags and, as seen from TV screens, made up of exclusively of men, responded to him by chanting “Allahu akbar!” and shouted slogans of “We are Tayyip’s soldiers!”
Their slogans aiming at Taksim protesters were, “Hey, minority, don’t go awry, don’t test our patience!” and, “Let us go and crush Taksim!”
Erdogan did not react negatively to any of these slogans. Just before he left for Morocco, his first step of the Maghreb tour, alluding to his constituency he had said: “Now there are at least 50% of this country we can hardly keep in their homes. And we are telling them, please be patient.”
It was understood that the prime minister had decided to use polarization policies that he has exceled in formulating and applying against the Gezi Park resistance.
It was clear that the first goal of his polarization approach was to reunify AKP ranks rattled by this social explosion and resistance, and to prevent the asking of questions that might cause confusion about his leadership.
This is why they were relying on conspiracy theories. Pro-government media is full of claims that the Gezi Park resistance is a part or outcome of an international conspiracy staged against Erdogan.
A striking example of this was a first-banner headline of the daily Yeni Safak under the headline, “Orders from Houston.” Let’s have a look at one passage of this “news report”:
“Intelligence experts have uncovered an interesting connection to Gezi Park protests that turned into hostility against Erdogan and his government. Marginal groups that simultaneously direct masses have been receiving orders from an address in the USA through “Zello” radio system. For urban banditry that appeared in many Turkish cities led by Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, non-stop directives were sent from an IP address in Houston, Texas. … The provocateurs who transferred these instructions virtually to 200,000 people, mostly CHP and Labor Party members, keep ordering those in the streets, “Don’t withdraw even if you get killed, they can’t do anything, don’t disperse.”
The newspaper had another headline report on June 5: “White Forces in Action.” This "news report" claimed that Gezi Park resistance was organized and led by personnel of a unit called "White Forces” under the Turkish Army’s Special Forces Command.
When the events led to a decline in the Istanbul Stock Market, AKP spokesmen immediately blamed the “interest lobby.”
On TV talk shows, we watched pro-government speakers who told us that American neo-cons and the Jewish lobby in their quest to weaken the Erdogan government were also mobilizing financial markets to reinforce their designs.
The chief adviser of Prime Minister Erdogan, an AKP member of Parliament, Yalcin Akdogan wrote in his regular column in the pro-government daily Star that "international power centers appear to be uncomfortable with Erdogan-style leadership."
By displaying international power centers, neo-cons, the Jewish lobby, main opposition CHP, nationalist Labor Party, marginal groups, some journalists, some artists, soldiers — in sum, all those who don’t like Erdogan — as partners in a dark conspiracy, the idea was to mobilize the defensive impulses of those who like Erdogan.
Thus we understand that, as much as unifying the ranks around Erdogan, another goal is to make the Gezi Park resistance illegitimate.
Through this pathetic management of the crisis, Erdogan as the prime minister has sustained the first major loss of his political career. What he can do after this point as a rational leader is to “manage the defeat" or in other words "minimize the losses."
And for that he has only one option. To negotiate, to hear the protesters and to declare in the shortest time possible the cancellation of the project to build a replica of the Artillery Barracks at Gezi Park and to solve the problem at its starting point by removing the grievances.
If he won’t do that, and we sense that he won’t, he will have two options left:
To wait for the resistance to wear out in time and for their protests to fizzle out by themselves. And then, by using all available propaganda methods, to discredit the resistance in the public eye and finally perhaps to intervene with the lowest possible costs.
This is risky, of course.
Because the assumption that the resistance will lose its energy is just that. Second, for the graffiti on the walls of Taksim Square occupied by thousands of protesters, the carcasses of burned out police cars and posters, the flags and banners of various opposition groups adorning buildings to remain for days and weeks may well cause a perception that Erdogan can no longer govern Turkey.
At the moment, Erdogan seems inclined toward the worst option, both for his image in the world and social peace in Turkey. That would be to attack with a major security force without losing time to recover the square from the protesters at the cost of possible fatalities.
That would be followed by a witch hunt against the protesters, the media, various business owners, civil society and against anyone empathizing with the protests.
It is certain that this option will be a disaster for him, his party and Turkey. There is no need to portray what that disaster will be like.
To resort to the worst but most likely option would not only make impossible the discussion of whether Turkey can be a democracy under moderate political Islam, but also destroy Erdogan’s credibility in the region and the world.
Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.