Turkish prime minister retains support amid protests
Published: June 8, 2013 05:49PM
Updated: June 8, 2013 06:02PM
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Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks stand on a barricade on a road leading to Taksim Square early Sunday, June 9, 2013. Tens of thousands of people thronged Istanbul's Taksim Square Saturday, and thousands more turned out in central Ankara as protests that have presented Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the first serious challenge to his leadership entered their second week. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

ISTANBUL » At a bustling coffee shop in a religiously conservative neighborhood of Istanbul, Ali Ermis looked at the anti-government protests sweeping Turkey and wondered why people were complaining.

The economy is improving, he said. His wife, who wears a head scarf, is freer to take part in public life than before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power 10 years ago. And no one likes public drunkenness, he said of efforts to restrict alcohol sales.

In refusing to back down to protesters who have turned out across Turkey in the tens of thousands for the past eight days, Erdogan has boasted that he has the power of half the country’s voters behind him, far more than any rival.

For now, the mostly young, mostly middle-class, mostly secular protesters appear to represent just a small portion of the tapestry of Turkey’s diverse society, and they have as many interests as there is space for banners in the trees of the park where they have encamped in this city.

Still, some who supported Erdogan as a stabilizing figure may abandon him if he becomes a divisive one, analysts say, and the Turkish leader may be forced to soften his hard-edged governing style.

Many of the protesters say they had never before taken part in Turkish political life. Some are so young that they barely remember a time before Erdogan was in office. Few expect to push him out of power, and streets remain quiet in conservative areas, even those close to Taksim Square, the heart of the protests.

With weak opposition leaders and a democratically elected majority for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, there is little clear political alternative in this nation of 74 million. In the conservative Istanbul quarter of Kasimpasa, Erdogan’s political home base, there is little desire for one.

“Ten years ago we couldn’t find water to wash ourselves,” said Ermis, 55, a driver, as he watched friends play a clacking tile game called Okey. Protesters “don’t want this country to develop, they want to bring it backward.”

Still, Ermis said, he disliked the tear gas and water cannons that police had used on peaceful protesters. “There is a failure of the state on that issue,” he said. Erdogan “is very stressed. He is not such a person.”

Erdogan’s party captured 50 percent of the vote in a 2011 general election, a commanding victory that topped his two previous elections. The results left him with few rivals, further cementing his power after he successfully removed the military from political life. The army staged four coups in the second half of the 20th century at times when its leaders believed the stability of the secular Turkish republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 was threatened. Many who disagreed with Erdogan on social issues supported his efforts to banish the military to its barracks.

Economic issues have also drawn support from businesspeople and investors. New skyscrapers stud Istanbul. Public transportation has greatly improved. Unemployment stands at 8.3 percent - the envy of many European countries - and the economy grew by 8.5 percent last year, compared with 2.2 percent in the United States.

To some extent, Erdogan created the open conditions in which a protest movement could flourish, analysts say. Many say that if similar protests had arisen when the military was more powerful, it would have intervened. Still, critics say, his leadership style has not evolved, even as he reshaped the country.

“You can’t rule this country the way you used to rule. You may have the mandate, but you may not rule as you wish,” said Cengiz Candar, a columnist at the daily Radikal newspaper. However, Candar said, “in a polarized country, he still has the support of one pole.”

For the time being, that pole is holding firm, with conservative Muslims particularly grateful to Erdogan for loosening restrictions on practicing their faith in public places. Those restrictions were a tenet of Ataturk’s secular state but chafed at those who wanted religious freedom.

“They are trying to disturb Turkey with this,” Veysel Muslihan, 45, said at the cellphone shop he opened six months ago in the conservative neighborhood of Carsamba. “People only vote for you if there is something you can offer them. There’s no opposition to Tayyip Erdogan right now.”

Muslihan said that his wife wears a head scarf but that neither of his two daughters does. All four of his children, he said, will benefit from Turkey’s booming economy as they grow up.

Erdogan has sent mixed responses to the protesters, sometimes appearing defiant, at other times appearing to make minor concessions. At an airport rally Friday morning, he said that protests “bordering on illegality must come to an end as of now.” Later in the day at a conference where he was chided by a European Union official for police violence, he said he still wanted to raze the park that sparked the protests but that he no longer wanted to construct a mall inside the building that would replace it.

“Anyone who has a problem with the government can handle this at the ballot,” he said.

“In this country 20 years ago people were afraid to admit their ethnic origins,” said Turkey’s E.U. affairs minister, Egeman Bagis. Now, he said, Armenians, Kurds and Orthodox Christians all live freer lives, along with Muslim women who wear head scarves. “Many individual rights have been given to citizens.”

But many critics say their freedom to live as they wish is slowly disappearing.

“Lifestyle shaped by Islamic culture was denied to many people until about 10 years ago,” said Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist and former close Erdogan friend who broke with him soon after he became prime minister. “Mr. Erdogan feels as though he has the right to impose a conservative lifestyle on those who lead a secular one.”

The protesters in the park say that Erdogan needs to expand his rule of the 50 percent to take into account 100 percent.

“I am a totally apolitical person,” said Gulperi Sertel, 25, a biochemical engineer who was walking through Gezi Park one recent evening with her family and said she had never participated in protests before this week. She said she feared for her right to dress as she pleased.

Erdogan’s party “does some good things,” she said, pointing to construction across the city. “But ideologically I am opposed.”

Washington Post correspondent Asli Sozbilir contributed to this report.