Found: Dialogue or Trap?

Today Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to soften his tone toward the protests which have rocked Istanbul, Ankara, and other major Turkish cities for the first time.  His prior remarks concerning the “looters,” as he has termed the protesters, have most commonly been termed “defiant” as he called for an immediate end to all protests without concessions.  But according to Vice-Prime Minister Bülent Arınç today, he will meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, as reported by the BBC.  The question is what Erdoğan intends to get out of this meeting.

On the one hand, Arınç indicated that the government would abide by court rulings with regard to the Gezi Park development, in response to protesters’ complaints that the government was violating a court ruling.  Thus it could be that Erdoğan is extending a conciliatory hand to the protesters in a move to broaden his appeal ahead of next year’s presidential election.  It is being widely speculated that Erdoğan may run for the presidential office after this term as prime minister is finished, since he has reached the constitutional limit for election as prime minister.  In the last Turkish presidential election in 2007, protests against a possible Erdoğan candidacy for president drew millions of people, and although he was not a candidate, he pushed a constitutional amendment to make the president elected directly by popular vote, rather than indirectly through the parliament.  The current president Abdullah Gül, formerly of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since Turkish presidents must renounce party affiliation, will be Turkey’s last indirectly elected president.

On the other hand, Erdoğan has consistently taken an aggressive stance against the protesters and has insisted that he is the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Turkey, so that the protesters have no legitimate grievance.  In the BBC report, Arınç promised, “All necessary actions against illegal acts will have been completed, and we will see this all together, by the weekend.”  So Erdoğan is expecting these meetings to be the end of the protests entirely.  His popularity has often been expressed in light of his being a strong leader who does not back down, and making Turkey strong through an improving economy, for example.  Could it be that instead of extending a conciliatory hand to the protesters from a position of political strength, he hopes to separate the leaders of the protests long enough to deal with the leaders and the rest of the protesters independently?  Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks that a forceful unyielding response to the protesters is the best way to bolster his popularity, rather than courting secularists who are likely to remain suspicious of him.

Whichever way his plans turn, he is likely to risk losing some of his followers.  A conciliatory approach might lose precisely those staunch supporters who admire him for never bowing to opposition, while setting a trap for protest leaders might lose some of his followers who want him to be a role-model of democratic dialogue.  (Are there any of these latter?  This Washington Post article quotes one at the end.)  In any event, how Erdoğan deals with these protesters will set a precedent for how political dissent will be handled in Turkey, either through silencing others’ voices or through encouraging dialogue.  We will have to wait until Wednesday to see what the Prime Minister has in mind.

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