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Anti-Government Protests Focus on Quality of Democracy in Turkey

June 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
For an update from the ground and to examine the scope and national impact of the protests against the leadership of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Judy Woodruff talks with Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor and Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to discuss the protests, the government’s response and what it all means, is Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor in Istanbul, and Soner Cagaptay. He’s director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program.

We thank you both for being here.

Let me start with you, Scott Peterson. The government came down really hard on these demonstrators last night. Where do these things stand now?

SCOTT PETERSON, The Christian Science Monitor: Well, at the moment, and in fact, for most of the day today, the police have been very, very relaxed. They have certainly been in control of this square.

In fact, they opened it up this morning. And this is after a night full of violence. There was a lot of back-and-forth fighting with protesters, lots of things exploding, things moving through the air, and, ultimately, of course, the police won that battle. And by dawn this morning, there was traffic already moving around the square.

And we saw a very different sense from the police today. They looked very relaxed, had their helmets off, riot shields kind of piled up, although we’re not sure what may be happening tonight. Some people are expecting that there might be a push to try and clear the — that Gezi Park.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Soner Cagaptay, who are these protesters, and what is driving them?

SONER CAGAPTAY, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: They are basically secular middle-class liberal Turks, though what is driving the protest is not the typical game of Turkish politics, where you would have the divide of Islam vs. secularism or Islamists vs. secularists.

That’s not it. This is not an ideological protest movement. It’s about quality of democracy in Turkey. This is about people making some very middle-class demands about the government’s need to respect freedom of assembly and freedom of association, urban space, hence the demonstrations over the park.

In fact, it’s a sign of a new Turkey. Turkey is rising. It has become a wealthy society. The AKP and its leader, Erdogan, thanks to their success, this has become a majority middle-class society. And now the AKP is a victim of its success. This middle class is making some very middle-class demands. They are saying, we have a right to assembly and if the government is going to build a shopping mall instead of a park, they should ask for our opinion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Scott Peterson, the government is saying there are terrorists among the demonstrators. Have you seen the makeup of these protests change in the last few days?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, they definitely have made a lot of claims about who these protesters are, but, in fact, really, it’s a broader group of Turks than you would expect.

I mean, certainly, those who are manning the front lines during some of the most violent protests during these last two weeks have been mostly young people. Some of them have been football hooligans or others who are truly looking for trouble.

But I would say the vast majority of the people we have seen here cut across a much broader swathe of Turkish society. And so you have got — you have got young people, certainly university students, but at the same time you have also got their parents who often are there. I have seen — last night, for example, during some of the very heated exchanges when there was tear gas all over the place, I saw one mother and quite older mother hand in hand with her daughter, and they both had their gas masks on and were trying to make a point.

And we see this in a lot of different places here. So I think it’s correct to recognize that, really, you know, there are a lot of people who are here and trying to make their point unified really in kind of their anger at how Prime Minister Erdogan has handled his own leadership, feeling that they’re very, very much excluded and trying to use this event as a way of getting their voices out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Soner Cagaptay, what about Erdogan’s response? How would you characterize it? And how do you explain it?

SONER CAGAPTAY: The response has been heavy-handed. Obviously, he didn’t reach out for a compromise.

The demonstrators are saying the following. They’re saying, you may have won the election, but listen to us. Take our views into account. And Erdogan’s response has been heavy-handed. He sent in the police to crack down. But then he also reached out. Today, there was a suggestion that there will be a referendum held to determine whether this park will be converted into a shopping mall.

But I think, overall, he’s trying to build his constituency, which is political right of the Turkish spectrum, but he will have a challenge, which is that the Turkish political left and liberals have now found a voice that they can demonstrate, do so publicly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Scott Peterson, again, do you sense more broadly among the Turkish population the support for Erdogan, Prime Minister Erdogan says he has?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, there seems — there’s no question that he’s got a lot of support that really and probably, as he says, is 50 percent of the country.

Now, we also know, however, that there’s some people who are within his own ruling AKP party. There have been also Islamists who have been out on the streets here who have been protesting not necessarily at his policies, but at the way that the prime minister actually conducts himself and behaves himself and really is sometimes much more confrontational than they themselves would like to see.

So there are a lot of things that are mixed up in this dynamic and in people’s reaction. Of course, no one here expected — and, in fact, just yesterday, the prime minister mentioned in parliament, he said, what do they expect? Do they expect that we will kneel down before them? That’s the question that he’s asking.

And he’s really couched this in — often in quite divisional and divisive terms. But at the same time, we have also gotten a sense in the last two days, especially when he’s been speaking — making many speeches in a day, several speeches in a day, that he almost has kind of started his presidential campaign for next year already, and that if this dragged on for a few more days and he was able to point to the other — as people who were connected to terrorists or otherwise vandals or marauders, then that really would only help to solidify his own base and that could only work to his favor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Soner Cagaptay, just quickly, what do you expect next?

SONER CAGAPTAY: What’s going on is not a shifting of political landscape in Turkey.

Half of the country supports the AKP. That’s a constant. It’s the other half that doesn’t support this party that’s now taking issue with its style of governance and telling Erdogan to not legislate on issues that infringes on people’s liberties and rights, such as recent legislation that bans or limits sale of alcohol, goes into issues of women’s rights.

And I think people are upset. So we’re going to see a new Turkey in which the secular middle classes which have found a voice on the street are going to continue to demonstrate whatever that next issue is, and Turkey is going to be, unfortunately, polarized for the next year between the supporters and the opponents of the government, as a country that’s almost split in the middle between two large political factions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Watching Turkey closely.

Soner Cagaptay, Scott Peterson, we thank you both.