As Turkey Protests Resume, Erdogan Stirs Up Opposition Even Within His Own Party

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Devlet Bahçeli, head of the Nationalist Movement Party (known by its Turkish acronym of MHP) and his political rival, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reminded the beaten protesters on Tuesday of the rules of the game.

"True," said Bahçeli, "the Justice and Development Party established gas chambers like the Nazis, and it sticks its nose into citizens' private lives, but the single place where it is possible to overcome the party is in elections."

Bahçeli, whose party holds 53 out of 550 seats in the Turkish parliament, clearly presents the dilemma protesters face: How can they translate the demonstrations into political power? The problem for demonstrators, namely for those who don't belong to the established political parties and movements, is that they don't have a well-defined demand, save for cancelling the construction of a mall on Gezi Park. The calls for Erdogan to leave office may be reminiscent of slogans shouted at Cairo's Tahrir Square, but in Turkey as opposed to Egypt, elections have a purpose and the public has faith in them.

During the last elections that took place in 2011, 87 percent of the electorate participated, the highest voter turnout in 30 years. The allegations made regarding Erdogan's rudeness, arrogance, and disrespect toward the public are true. But without practical demands that can be pursued in negotiations, it is doubtful if the demonstrators can persuade the broader public to join the protest for much longer.

Also, the timing of the demonstrations doesn't help the protesters. The next presidential elections are expected to take place only next year and it will be difficult for the protesters and Erdogan's political rivals to preserve the memory of the events of Taksim Square for a year. But then his opponents will have a new reason to protest.

Erdogan, who hopes to be the next president of Turkey, is planning to implement constitutional reforms before then, which are expected to include, among other provisions, expanded powers for the president based on the model of the president of the United States. Even more than this, he aims to gain the power to dissolve parliament when needed. The opposition parties and the demonstrators in Taksim Square aren't the only people who stand opposed to this ambition.

Even within the ranks of the Justice and Development Party there those who oppose the expansion of presidential powers and a change in the form of government. Current Turkish President Abdullah Gul isn't enamored with the expansion of powers Erdogan is seeking. Gul increasingly appears as Erdogan's political rival rather than as an obedient ally. This rivalry has been displayed in the way Gul has addressed the protesters. In contrast to Erdogan, who has reproached them, belittled them and labeled them activists of "external powers", Gul has apologized to protesters for the use of force against them, exclaimed that "democracy isn't just expressed during elections" but also by the ability to protest and express opinions. Gul was the one who picked up the telephone to call Istanbul's mayor and Erdogan to ask them to remove the police from Taksim Square and to halt the use of tear gas and clubs.

Erdogan continues to enrage the public, including his own voting public, who see how the popularity of the prime minister, the one leader that can ensure AKP's rule, continuing to erode because of his arrogant behavior.

"No leader would have continued with their planned visits abroad during such a crisis," a senior AKP official in Ankara told Haaretz. "Erdogan needed to have stayed in Turkey and not travel to North Africa. He wants to prove that everything alright, when everything isn't alright. He is hurting us, his own party."

At the same time, Erdogan can still count on his own achievements: for taking Turkey from economic crisis to prosperity, the reconciliation process with the Kurds (which enrages his opponents on the right), for getting the army out of politics (a step supported by Turkey's liberals and left) and for placing Turkey in the first tier of influential countries in the region. Even Erdogan's opponents don't want to give up these accomplishments. They remember in their frustration how the country fell apart when fragile, paralyzed left-center coalitions couldn't successfully lead it.

Erdogan can also draw satisfaction from the fact that the number of protesters in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities has been estimated in the thousands or tens of thousands, while the entire population of the country is greater than 80 million. His electoral base is still strong, and he is counting on the charisma which has kept him in power for three terms and that will help him calm the public after her returns from his tour abroad.

The protesters will find all these things difficult to swallow, particularly when the fundamental reason for the protests, the construction of a mall at Gezi Park, have fallen from the agenda following a court decision and the assurances protesters received from Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Erdogan has left to his deputies and even President Gul, the task of reconciling with the protesters on the assumption or hope that they will calm the spirits and he will be able to lay claim to the success when he returns. If they fail, Erdogan will be able to come afterward with his own proposal and try to sell it in the same manner in which he succeeded in marketing the reconciliation plan with the Kurds and the constitutional reforms he passed by referendum three years ago. 

Protesters clash with police in Istanbul.Credit: AFP

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