A Turkish Premier Consolidating His Power Orders Taksim Empty on May Day

Having almost boundless executive authority and a weak opposition, Erdogan is still feeling threatened.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
People help a child affected by teargas as riot police disperse thousands trying to reach Taksim Square to celebrate May Day in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, May 1, 2014.
People help a child affected by teargas as riot police disperse thousands trying to reach Taksim Square to celebrate May Day in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, May 1, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The picture of a young woman with a head covering tries to breathe through a half lemon that a man is putting to her face is just one of the dramatic photographs published today in the Turkish media. The woman could not withstand any longer the harsh tear gas fired by the large numbers of police deployed all over Istanbul, and she looked like she was about to faint.

Other pictures showed little children carried by their fathers struggling to breathe through makeshift face masks. But the police were also photographed helping a little girl get away from the “battlefield.” And there was a picture of someone's hand palming marbles, a stone and a large bolt — all intended to be thrown at the police. These last two were probably meant to balance out the hoard of shots of police repression showcasing the security force's determination to squash the demonstrations.

Taksim Square, which was expected to be the center of the May Day demonstrations, remained empty. Thousands of police officers equipped with armored cars and heavy barricades prevented the protestors from reaching the square and closed off the roads a few blocks away. The protestors were met with water cannons as usual and the rubber bullets as well. Public transportation was partially shut down and dozens were arrested. Police forces endured a barrage of rocks and Molotov cocktails. But with all said and done, this year's May Day in Turkey could have been much worse.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to thwart the protests in Taksim Square on May Day was based, Erdogan said, on intelligence there was a plan to use weapons during the demonstrations. A court ruled against a challenge to the ban and it appears that the judiciary, which has come under a harsh attack by Erdogan, was convinced of the validity of threat and the risk of violence spreading.

But the ban on the demonstration at Taksim Square actually reminds Turks of the 33 years during which such protests in the square were entirely prohibited — from 1977 until May 2010. The horrible events of 1977, which ended in the death of 34 people by police and also involved citizens taking up arms against law enforcement, have earned the name "May Massacre." In 2010, Erdogan allowed demonstrations once again, and even branded it a historic occasion.

The reinstatement of the ban on Taksim Square demonstrations is only one in a series of steps Erdogan has taken to curb his rivals. “Whoever was against us will pay the price,” he promised — or, rather, threatened — after his successful local election campaign that handed his party over 40 percent of the electorate. Erdogan does not consider his blocking of Twitter and Youtube, starting a short while before the elections, as a settling of accounts. But when Turkey's constitutional court lifted the Twitter ban, this honorable institution also made it onto the list of enemies Erdogan will be gunning for after his presidential run in August.

Erdogan has a number of tools at his disposable. There's the new intelligence law that went into effect a week ago for one. The law grants the intelligence agencies and their representatives broad powers. For example, it is now impossible to put on trial intelligence agents who infiltrated terrorist organizations and committed crimes in the course duty. Intelligence authorities can request and receive material on citizens form all government archives. Private companies must provide all information on citizens and organizations that is requested, including their consumption habits or a list of products they have purchased. It is now possible to eavesdrop on Turkish citizens outside of the country without a court order, and anyone who leaks documents or confidential information can be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

Erdogan has meanwhile declared he will demand that the United States extradite the cleric Fethulleh Gulen. A world war broke out between Gulen and Erdogan a few months ago because of Erdogan’s suspicions that Gulen supporters are working to bring down his government. But to give the extradition request a legal basis, the prosecution in Turkey has opened an official investigation into Gulen’s involvement in espionage. The investigation rests on the allegations that Gulen's supporters in the communications authority leaked confidential information and secret recordings that were later published in the media. Turkish authorities can now request Gulen’s extradition from the United States.

The surprising thing is that all this is happening in a year Erdogan has demonstrated political strength, which has only been boosted after the local elections — yet he still feels persecuted and threatened. “He is not persecuted and certainly not threatened,” a senior member of the opposition Republican party told Haaretz. “He aspires to be a sole ruler, a modern dictator, who, like Napoleon, thinks he is the state.” But this explanation still does not answer the question of where the 60 percent who did not vote for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party are — the 60 percent that possibly views Erdogan as a threat to democracy. The opposition to Erdogan is not capable of fielding even a single appropriate candidate to run against him.

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