WASHINGTON, DC – Widespread demonstrations sparked by the Turkish government’s plan to build a mall and a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks in Istanbul’s Gezi Park seem to have ebbed after Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdoğan met with the protesters’ representatives and, subsequently, ordered demonstrators to disperse. But, while the tear-gas fumes in Taksim Square may be dissipating, lingering questions about the protests there could have broader implications for Erdoğan’s agenda – and for Turkey’s political and social evolution.
Contrary to what Erdoğan seems to believe, the protests were more than a spontaneous outburst of pent-up rage by a motley group of malcontents. And the government-ordered police crackdown – which, in addition to tear gas, included the use of water cannon and rubber bullets, as well as the detention of demonstrators, journalists, and medics – has tarnished Erdoğan’s image at home and abroad.
Nevertheless, it would be premature to write Erdoğan off, as some Western commentators have been tempted to do. After all, there is currently no viable alternative in Turkey to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The opposition Republican People’s Party has not won an election in four decades, owing largely to its failure to extend its voter base beyond its secular core. The AKP, by contrast, has won the last three elections and is expected to triumph in next year’s poll, as well.
Moreover, there is no one within the AKP who could challenge Erdoğan. Despite speculation that moderate President Abdullah Gül could take over if Erdoğan falters, Gül lacks Erdoğan’s charisma and keen political instincts, and has so far showed no sign that he intends to act.