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Turkey’s Erdogan open to Istanbul park referendum

Mehdi Chebil

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party said Wednesday it was open to holding a referendum over the fate of an Istanbul park that sparked nationwide protests against government authoritarianism.


The Turkish government is open to holding a referendum over an Istanbul development plan that has had a central role in nearly two weeks of mass protests, a spokesman for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party said Wednesday.

The announcement, following talks between Erdogan and a group of activists, amounts to the first big gesture by his government to end a standoff with protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and around the country.

But on a more defiant note, Justice and Development Party spokesman Huseyin Celik also said the government would not allow the ongoing sit-in in Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square, to continue “until doomsday” – a sign that authorities’ patience is running out.

The prospect of a referendum amounts to a political gamble by Erdogan, who has drawn the ire of protesters over his alleged authoritarian streak. He appeared to be betting that his strong base of support would vote for the plans.

Police crackdown

The protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to the project to replace Gezi Park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. Protests then spread to 78 cities across the country and have attracted tens of thousands of people nearly every night.

Celik said the referendum would be on the Ottoman-era barracks. But he said it would exclude the planned demolition of a cultural centre that the protesters also oppose; Celik said the centre was in an earthquake-prone area, and needed to come down.

Erdogan hosted the group of 11 activists – including academics, students and artists – in his offices in Ankara. Some leaders of civil society groups, including Greenpeace, had said they would not participate because of an “environment of violence” in the country.

Meanwhile, police and protesters retrenched after fierce overnight clashes in Taksim Square. In Ankara and Istanbul, thousands of lawyers railed against the alleged rough treatment of dozens of their colleagues, who police briefly detained in Istanbul on the sidelines of Tuesday’s unrest.

Tension in Gezi Park

In Gezi Park, tension was high on Wednesday, FRANCE 24’s Mehdi Chebil reported, as exhausted anti-government protesters expressed concerns that the clashes between police and demonstrators in adjacent Taksim Square would be a prelude to their own forced expulsion.

“After the police arrived in Taksim Square, we saw people we had never seen before come here,” said 27-year-old protester Dinçer, who has been camping out in Gezi Park for nearly two weeks. “They were extremely virulent, and we could tell that they were there to provoke and give the police an excuse to enter the park.”

The idea that agitators sent by the government incited a face-off with the police is common among protesters in Gezi, who are still reeling from the large-scale assault launched by police Tuesday on Taksim Square.

Many are bitter, convinced that a trap set by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will inevitably end up ensnaring them.

Woodstock-like ambiance turns tense

Attempts to maintain the non-violent nature of the movement are fraying, as several demonstrators openly support those who fought back against police in Taksim Square.

“This government is incredibly vicious, and has been trying to turn citizens against one another,” exclaimed Aysel indignantly. This 26-year-old businesswoman says she is honoured to exchange her work attire for a construction hat and gas mask when she joins protesters in the park every night.

“It’s all part of the government’s plan to portray us as depraved, alcoholic sex fiends,” Aysel continued. “But the fact that Erdogan is giving ten speeches per day shows, above all, that he is truly frightened by our movement.”

The sudden change in ambiance from a pacifistic, almost Woodstock-like gathering to a tense military encampment has, for the moment, not managed to scare off the young, largely Westernised Turkish citizens at the heart of the anti-government movement.

But the coming days may very well put their determination to the test.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Tension mounts in Gezi Park
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