Taksim Protests: Is Erdogan a Dicator On the Defense?

The spreading protests in Turkey are raising an important question: is Turkey, long considered the "only Muslim democracy," actually a dictatorship?

Answer: Pretty much.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his policies are the focal point of the protests across Turkey. Erdogan is the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a center-right conservative party which developed from a tradition of political Islam.

The AKP and Erdogan came to power in 2003 after winning a landslide victory in the 2002 elections, and secured over 2/3rds of the seats in parliament. In the two elections since then, the AKP has increased in popularity and won increasing margins in national elections.

One of the reasons why the AKP is so popular is because it helped save Turkey from a banking crisis that started in 2001 and was destroying the nation. By rebuilding the banking sector, getting the budget under control, investing heavily in education, health, technology, and infrastructure, and using smart diplomacy, Erdogan has made Turkey into a global leader.

So if the AKP and Erdogan are so popular, why are tens of thousands of Turks now protesting and calling their democratically elected leader a "sultan" and "dictator"?

While Erdogan has helped the country become economically successful, his social policies are less than ideal. Erdogan is a strong believer in a "my way or the highway" style of governing.

In March, the prime minister told journalists to censor themselves if they loved their nation, saying "If you are going to conduct this kind of journalism, then we don't need your journalism. We want a service to this nation."

He has also condemned a "freakish" sculpture he disliked, a rock festival that offered beer, and a soap opera whose plot line centered on the sexual intrigue of an Ottoman-era harem. Following his remarks, the sculpture has been demolished, the rock festival is now dry, and the characters of the soap opera have started praying.

What may have tipped the scales against the AKP are the new laws that restrict the consumption of alcohol in Turkey. Rushed through Parliament two weeks ago, the regulations limit the sale of alcohol, ban all alcohol advertising, and prohibit new shops and bars from opening within 100 meters of mosques and schools.

Appearing on television Sunday, Erdogan defended the new laws, saying "I want them to know that I want these [restrictions] for the sake of their health ... Whoever drinks alcohol is an alcoholic."

Sparking the nationwide protests was a heavy-handed approach to disbanding the sit-in against the demolition of Gezi Park. Police used tear gas and water cannons against the peaceful protesters, an excessive use of force which redirected anger towards the government.

Erdogan has denied claims that he is a "dictator," and instead blames the protests raging across Turkey as the product of opposition parties who were "unable to beat (the government) at the ballot box."

However, more than 1,700 people have been arrested since the protests began, and police continue to use tear gas, water cannons, and violence in an attempt to subdue the people. Although Erdogan may have been elected, this kind of domestic violence to censor anti-government protests is the hallmark of a dictator.