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Swift Spread of Protests Underline ‘Wide Social Divisions’ in Turkey

June 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
When Turkish police broke up a peaceful sit-in against the redevelopment of a park, it spurred mass protests across the country. Jeffrey Brown talks with The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson from Istanbul for more on how the demonstrations spread and why some Turks are disenchanted with their government.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I spoke to Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor in Istanbul.

Scott, thanks for joining us.

So, this all started over what from the outside seems relatively small, some redevelopment plans. What do people say about why it’s grown so much?

SCOTT PETERSON, The Christian Science Monitor: I think it’s really kind of shocked authorities and also shocked those would have actually taken part, the fact that this gained so much speed last Friday, just three days ago.

It really started as this tiny sit-in, but this kind of progressive, powerful reaction by the police, these efforts to break up the sit-in basically caught the imagination of a lot of people who are more broadly unhappy with the — with Prime Minister Erdogan’s rule.

And so they wanted to make their point, and they did so very, very swiftly. And what I heard repeatedly during these — during these days is how surprised people were that they came out in such large numbers, that they were able to take on the police and also, of course, in their view, reacting to a very, very strong police effort to keep them from gathering and really expending huge amounts of tear gas in the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: And tell us a little bit more about who the protesters are. What — and to the extent you can, is it clear what they’re after?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, these are — this is a great question.

I think, in fact, even the protesters themselves don’t know. I mean, literally, in the last half-an-hour, I was speaking to some protesters, some young students. They were art students. They had construction helmets. They had protective material taped to the sides, and they had kind of workshop goggles.

And that was their protection. There was a group of them. And I said, OK, so you’re making your point known. There are a lot of people here, but what are you actually after? And, of course, they said, well, we want to see the end of Erdogan and that sort of thing.

And I said, you know, you and I both know that Erdogan is not going anywhere, that, you for 50 — you know, he’s got 50 percent of the electorate behind him. He feels very strong in that. Some analysts say that he hasn’t lost a single vote in the course of these events, because the people who are out there protesting are not those who voted for him.

So, I said, so what really do you expect to gain? And they really had very little sense about what they actually did want to get or what they expected. And I think it depends on the political parties. It also depends on, you know, what type. They say, we want freedom. We want more democracy. And, of course, this is already a democracy.

So, I think there’s a lot to play out for here politically still before this — before this process is over.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Scott, then what has been the stance of the prime minister? He’s rejected any comparisons to an Arab spring-type situation. What is he saying?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, he’s taken a very defiant tone and, in fact, for many of the people who have been protesting, a very threatening tone.

In fact, I think that one of the most important things to watch for in the coming days is to see what moves, what adjustments Prime Minister Erdogan actually makes in his statements. Will he sound more conciliatory, which is something that really has been against his character over the last 10 years? When you speak to people on the ground here, they don’t expect any give at all from the prime minister. They’re constantly speaking about authoritarian rule. They use the word dictator. They use the word fascist.

What they say is — and one analyst described to me today that what President [Prime Minister] Erdogan sees is a majoritarian democracy. In other words, he wins most votes, and then he takes what he wants and makes all the decisions on his own, as opposed to a much more inclusive democracy that would be one that would include all those who — Turks who also didn’t vote for him and are many of those who see we see out on the streets today.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wonder, can you tell how much this is being seen there as part of a larger split within the society, of those who favor a more secular culture and those who are for more — and including the prime minister’s party — a more religious-based society?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, that’s right.

What we’re seeing here really are the very wide social divisions that already exist and have existed for decades really in Turkey kind of exposed and made clear. And it’s interesting that they come now. Of course, they have especially existed over the last decade because for those, many of those who are on the streets now, more secular bent or type of people who really do adhere to the secular basis of this republic going back 75 years, you know, what they see is, they see an encroaching Islamism that is coming from Prime Minister Erdogan.

They have complained about that. And, you know, going back 10 years ago, they were always making comparisons, saying, we don’t want to have an Islamic republic in Turkey. They’re going to bring an Iran-style Islamic state and all that kind of thing, speaking in very extreme terms.

Now, Prime Minister Erdogan has in fact overseen a much more mercantile democracy. This would be, you know, where money really trumped most other — most other concerns. We haven’t seen so much of the religious side, but more recently people feel that the prime minister has made and his party has made many more steps toward an Islamic future.

And that’s one that they really feel is being imposed upon them and that they don’t want to accept.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor in Istanbul, thanks so much.

SCOTT PETERSON: Thank you.