Under pressure from the US and other NATO partners to negotiate with leaders of a spontaneous protest in Istanbul, Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan today offered a possible solution — as well as a warning. Erdogan proposed to let a court decide on his plan to redevelop Gezi Park, which touched off the initial protests that turned into a demonstration against the Erdogan government in general, and perhaps even a referendum. But if the offer isn’t accepted, protesters will be leaving Gezi in another manner altogether, Erdogan promised:
Turkish activists leading a sit-in were considering a promise Friday by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to let the courts — and a potential referendum — decide the fate of an Istanbul park redevelopment project that has sparked Turkey’s biggest protests in decades.
In last-ditch negotiations after Erdogan issued a “final warning” to protesters, his ruling party announced early Friday that the government would suspend a controversial construction plan for Istanbul’s Gezi Park until courts could rule on its legality. Even if the courts sided with the government, a city referendum would be held to determine the plan’s fate, officials said.
The unilateral pledge aimed to cajole protesters into ending a two-week standoff that has damaged Erdogan’s international reputation and led to repeated clashes with riot police. After initially inflaming tensions by dubbing the protesters “terrorists” and issuing defiant public remarks, Erdogan has moderated his stance in closed-door talks this week.
It remained far from clear, however, whether the overture would work. The park is one of the few green areas left in the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul and many protesters were still seething over the forceful operations by riot police that at times devolved into violent clashes with stone- and firebomb-throwing youths.
Such scenes prompted the European Parliament on Wednesday to condemn the heavy-handed response by Turkish police and sparked a heated riposte from Erdogan.
Erdogan’s offer probably wouldn’t exist at all if not for that pressure. As Pew and the Washington Post noted earlier this week, the long-time PM remains more popular in Turkey than most US presidents during their tenures:
A recent Pew Research poll confirms that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist-leaning party has been elected to power three times in a row, is popular among Turkish voters, with 62 percent saying they have a favorable view of him. It’s possible that the backlash against his crackdown on protests in Istanbul(where he receives only 46 percent approval) may have reduced this number but, as of the time the poll was taken, he enjoyed remarkably broad public support.
This poll put Erdogan way above many Western leaders in turns of popular support. President Obama has a 47 percent approval rating among likely voters. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron recently put up a 32 percent approval rating and French President Francois Hollande, according to one poll, has only 29 percent support.
This highlights two important differences between Turkey’s protest movement and, for example, Egypt’s in 2011. First, Erdogan and his party were democratically electedwith the help of its grassroots support base, unlike Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who seized power and attempted to force it from the top-down. And though Egypt’s revolution turned on mass protests in the country’s largest city as well, one in four Egyptians live in the greater Cairo area, the country’s center of gravity. Only about one in seven Turks live in Istanbul.
The longer this protest goes on, of course, the more erosion that Erdogan might see in his approval ratings. However, he has long way to go before getting too concerned. Even with this offer, he’s not risking much. Would a court defy Erdogan on a land-use issue in an already-highly-developed city? Probably not. The polling matters for the referendum promise, too; with that kind of political capital, it’s not much of a risk. The big risk for Erdogan is in applying excessive force and creating political martyrs that could undermine his mandate for rule.
Basically, Erdogan is demanding that the protesters accept a thin premise of moral victory before beating a hasty retreat. By making the offer and pairing it with the warning of what will happen if they refuse, Erdogan is defusing some of the real risk to his standing pre-emptively. It’s a smart move, and doesn’t leave the protesters much room to maneuver.