Another summer of unrest for Turkey?

by A.Z.
The Economist

Is it going to be another summer of unrest? The question became more urgent on May 1st when Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, succeeded in asserting his iron grip and prevented May Day celebrations from taking place in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Scenes similar to last summer’s mass protests, sparked by Mr Erdogan’s plans to build a shopping mall in the Gezi Park, were repeated on Thursday as riot police armed with plastic bullets, water cannons and pepper spray clashed with protestors battling to defy the ban. Dozens of people, including nine journalists, were wounded and around 160 were detained.

Across Turkey security officials took extreme measures to prevent the celebrations from turning into anti-government demonstrations. Public transport was halted in scattered arteries in Istanbul, one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Bemused tourists wandered around with their suitcases looking for ways to get to their hotels. In the capital, Ankara, the city centre was in lockdown. A spokesperson for the Istanbul governor’s office justified the moves on the grounds that “illegal terror organisations and their arms would provoke violence.”

Pro-government newspapers splashed photographs of the alleged provocateurs leaning over rows of beer bottles, supposedly suggesting how debauched they were. In reality these pictures were taken in Ukraine. On Twitter pro-government trolls waged their own battles against those who dared to suggest that police brutality was taking place, inundating them with threatening messages and labeling them “traitors.”

Mr Erdogan has been on the offensive ever since the Gezi park protests last summer left seven people dead (and his international reputation in tatters). Unfazed by rebukes from his western friends, Mr Erdogan has turned up repression in recent months, ramming through controversial laws on internet censorship and boosting the powers of the national spy agency (MIT) and those of the government over the courts. Mr Erdogan insists this is needed to fend off a supposed cabal of global conspirators who are bent on overthrowing him and harming Turkey.

More likely, say Mr Erdogan’s critics, the curbing of the judiciary’s power is aimed at stifling a slew of corruption charges being leveled against his family and close circle. Such suspicions grew after the government banned access to YouTube, where incriminating recordings of conversations between Mr Erdogan and his son have scored millions of hits. Freedom House, a New York based media watchdog, in a report released to mark World Press Freedom day on May 2nd, downgraded Turkey, which has more journalists in jail than any other country, from “partially free” to “not free.”

None of this has put a dent in Mr Erdogan’s popularity. Drawing on its record of economic stability and growth, Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK) trounced its perennially squabbling rivals in the local polls on March 30th. He is now expected to make a bid for the presidency when it is up for grabs in August.

Yet the economy is slowing down and Mr Erdogan’s confrontational tactics are beginning to sap investor confidence. Moreover, the government may not prove as successful in suppressing the first anniversary of the Gezi protests that is due to be marked across the country on May 31st. Mr Erdogan’s ride to the presidency promises to be a bumpy one.