On May 28 citizens gathered in Taksim Gezi Park to protest the demolition of one of the area’s last green spaces, set to be used for barracks and a mall. That stand against government bulldozers has since grown into a nationwide movement against what many Turks believe to be an increasingly authoritarian government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite having revitalized the Turkish economy in the past decade, the prime minister has taken an increasingly less democratic approach to economic and social reforms, leading many to believe that the country Washington once called an “excellent model” of a post-uprising state in the Arab world has turned into a hollow democracy.
Protests in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces have led to over 700 people being arrested, most of whom have since been released. There have also been an estimated 58 civilian hospitalizations and 115 security officer injuries.
For demonstrators, the tearing down of this six-square block park embodies the recent direction the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken. There has been growing popular discontent of the AKP’s political and economic policies, culminating in the current struggle for Turkish identity.
Politically, as the middle class and Kurdish inclusion have grown, so has participation in parliamentary elections. However, the democratic process itself is crumbling. Particularly since 2007, jailing journalists on questionable grounds, punishing businesses whose owners disagree with the government, and slowly cutting down on freedoms of expression. Consider for example the sad example of Friday’s coverage of the protests. As CNN International covered the protests live, CNN Turk aired a cooking show, likely fearing the government’s press censorship and intimidation.
Recently, youths have been particularly angered by the Islamic direction of the government. The prime minister recently announced restrictions on the consumption and sale of alcohol in Turkey after 10 p.m. to "protect new generations from such un-Islamic habits" and raise them according to the Turkish and Islamic culture.
Economically the AKP has been phenomenal for Turkey. Under the AKP the Turkish economy has tripled in size from 2002 to 2011. In November 2012, the global ratings agency Fitch rated Turkish bonds investment-grade for the first time since 1994, causing an influx of foreign investment that has catalyzed the growth rate to approximately 8% per year. Inflation and public debt are finally under control, Turkey has paid back its last loan to the IMF, and last year Istanbul was right behind Paris and London in tourist arrivals.
Erdogan has used his government’s economic success as justification for massive urban development projects. Gezi Park is an extremely popular and rare oasis of green in Istanbul, but the government has chosen to disregard community concerns over traffic, the environment, and standards of living by pushing forward “redevelopment” plans by decree.
In fact, the government is seizing the surrounding area of Tarlabasi using the eminent domain law, and empowering developers to transform it into an upscale neighborhood. As FP reports, “While Tarlabasi was declared an "urban renewal area" in 2006, residents did not learn about the planned demolition of their houses until 2008.” The company contracted to rebuild Tarlabasi is owned by none other that Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Finally, and probably most importantly, the prime minister plans on adding another airport to Istanbul and a third bridge across the Bosphorus, a plan he himself called “a murder … massacring the remaining green areas” of the city when it was proposed by his predecessor.
For many the police brutality towards the Gezi protestors was the breaking point in their outrage over crony capitalism, the arrogance of power, and the AKP’s growing authoritarian nature. Continuing to dismiss his opponents, Erdogan warned, “if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million,” and Saturday tweeted: “Wherever they try to hit us, we will stand tall and strong.”