Turkey protesters air pent-up frustration

ANKARA, Fulya Ozerkan- What started as a small campaign against a local project in Istanbul has rapidly spiralled into an outpouring of national anger over how the Islamist-rooted government treats its citizens, which threatens to tarnish Turkey's reputation as a model for the Muslim region.
Ordinary citizens in Ankara's residential neighbourhoods beat pots and pans or blew whistles to express their discontent, while in the streets of the capital as well as Istanbul marchers faced tear gas and water cannon.

Turkey protesters air pent-up frustration
Turks in the officially secular country have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as curbs to their freedom by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, whom some protesters accuse of being a "dictator".
"This is a movement which is a result of growing frustration and disappointment among secular segments of society who could not influence politics over the last decade," said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.
"This is an unprecedented, abrupt and unplanned public movement that has not been manipulated by any political party. It is a big surprise," he told AFP.
While analysts caution against describing the popular protests here as a harbinger of a "Turkish Spring", the heavy-handed government response has sparked fury.
Police fired tear gas in both Ankara and Istanbul to disperse protesters and arrested more than 1,700 people as unrest spread to 67 cities nationwide.
One eyewitness in Ankara said police were beating some demonstrators with sticks as protesters shouted "Dictator, resign" and "We will resist until we win."
Many protesters feel Erdogan's rule has left Turkish society more polarised than ever, with opponents of the AKP government openly voicing concerns that Turkey is moving toward conservative Islam.
The ruling party, which enjoys a large parliamentary majority, has passed a series of reforms which have outraged many citizens who complain of a slide toward an authoritarian and conservative agenda.
In 2004, the party attempted to submit a controversial amendment on banning adultery but had to back down amid criticism from opposition parties and women's groups.
Last year, Erdogan provoked outrage when he likened abortion to murder, and secularists cried foul when parliament last year passed his contentious education reform allowing clerical schools for the raising of what he described as a "pious generation."
More recently, Turkey's parliament passed legislation curbing alcohol sales and advertising, which would be the toughest in the republic's history if the president, a former AKP member, signs it into law.
In April, an Istanbul court ordered a retrial for world-renowned pianist Fazil Say, who was convicted to 10 months in prison for blasphemy over a series of social media posts. The 43-year-old virtuoso has accused the AKP of being behind the case against him.
Critics accuse Erdogan's government of using courts to silence dissenting voices.
Turkey is the leading jailer of journalists worldwide, imprisoning even more than China or Iran, according to rights groups.
Hundreds of military officers, academics and lawyers are also in detention -- most of them accused of plotting against the government.
The movement in Taksim Square started as an ecologist protest against the razing of some 600 trees but ballooned quickly into a large-scale demonstration that the foreign minister has said is harming Turkey's global reputation.
"This has become a movement against a government that is increasingly sticking its nose into our private lives," said one protester, who gave his name as Hamdi.
Erdogan's ruling AKP first won elections in 2002 on a wave of popular support after years of unstable coalition governments. His party swept 50 percent of the votes in 2011 elections.
The AKP can point to a transformation of the economy after a devastating meltdown in 2001 and has introduced strict budgetary discipline, posting growth rates of over eight percent in 2010 and 2011.
Erdogan has also sought to raise Turkey's diplomatic profile, often engaging in lectures on how democracy and Muslim values can coexist, in particular in countries swept up by the Arab Spring uprisings.
But many analysts say the government response to the protests has dealt a blow to Ankara's goal to become a Muslim-majority role model in a fragile region.
-- Penguin documentaries, but little TV coverage of events --
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wrote on Twitter that the protests would "harm the reputation of our country, which is admired both in the region and the world."
Turkey's former ally Syria has even mocked Erdogan, who has long urged the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to listen to its people's demands, and accused the Turkish leader of "terrorising" his own people.
"Turkey is not in a situation to preach democracy because winning elections alone is not an indicator of the quality of democracy," said Ilter Turan, a professor at Istanbul's private Bilgi University.
"Mr Erdogan does not accept any limitations to his power as a majority leader," Turan said.
And in what was seen as another sign of government pressure, Turkish media hardly covered the protests.
As clashes took place across the country, some prime-time TV stations refused to interrupt their daily broadcasts and aired penguin documentaries and cooking shows instead of full coverage of the nationwide protests.

Monday, June 3rd 2013
Fulya Ozerkan

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