In Turkey protests, splits in Erdogan’s base

Two weeks into the demonstrations that have shaken Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s formerly rock-solid support has begun to soften.

Some loyal political Islamists, including an influential civil society movement, have criticized his on-again, off-again crackdown. And in the Istanbul neighborhood that is his political home, many said Friday that they still supported him but were uneasy with the methods used against the demonstrators.

Erdogan remains by far the most popular politician in Turkey, and supporters say pro-government rallies this weekend will give his voters a chance to show their strength. But divisions have opened among his base, with especially harsh criticism coming from a movement led by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, a once-staunch Erdogan backer who has questioned the government’s handling of the crisis from self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

With riot police using tear gas and water cannons on protesters in Taksim Square twice in the past two weeks, many here fault Erdogan’s decisions for escalating a crisis that began as a small, peaceful protest against plans to replace Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul, with a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks that once stood on the site. After an initial police crackdown on May 31, demonstrations quickly spread to dozens of cities across the country, and complaints broadened to include more fundamental personal freedoms.

In a 41 / 2-hour closed-door meeting with opposition representatives on Friday, Erdogan offered a plan to wind down the protests. He said he would wait for a court to rule whether his plans for Gezi Park were legal. Even if he won the court case, he would put the decision to a citywide referendum, he said in a speech.

Many in Taksim Square and adjoining Gezi Park were skeptical that the concessions were enough to get the protesters to return home. And across Turkey, splits among Erdogan supporters suggested that a new political calculus had begun to emerge. His party won a sweeping parliamentary mandate in 2011, built on a faithful core of conservative Muslims who had long felt disenfranchised.

In trying to prevent one wrong, “50-fold more wrongs are being committed, sparking more rancor and hatred,” Gulen said last week, according to the Gulen-affiliated Today’s Zaman newspaper. Of the protests, he said, “don’t disregard them.”

Several years of tension

The Gulen Movement’s support was vital to Erdogan’s initial successes, analysts say, and although there has been tension between Erdogan and Gulen for several years, it has rarely been so open. The Gulen Movement is a civil society group that promotes education and religious tolerance but carries an air of secrecy and mystery akin to the Masons. Despite his absence, Gulen’s sermons and proclamations carry outsize weight in Turkey, where many believe his loyalists have a substantial presence in the police force and judiciary.

“No one should underestimate the Gulen sect,” said Mehmet Baransu, a journalist at the Taraf newspaper who has written prominent investigations of the military and said that many people thought he was a member of the Gulen Movement, although he said he was not.

“There’s a huge fight” between Gulen’s backers and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, sparked in part because Gulenists think that many party supporters have grown corrupt, he said.

Gulen’s power is not so deep that Erdogan’s control over the police force is seriously in question, Baransu and other analysts said. But in the long run, the criticism from Gulen and columnists in the two newspapers aligned with Gulen, Zaman and Today’s Zaman, is a sharp sign that the movement disapproves of the current tactics toward the protesters.

“The Gulenists never fight in public,” Baransu said. “So even the smallest criticism should be regarded as important.”

‘He’s been so stubborn’

More widely, Erdogan’s former do-no-wrong profile among his supporters may have been tarnished by his response to the protest movement.

“I don’t know if he is tired. He’s been so stubborn about this park,” said Turgut Yancin, 55, a retired mover who was sipping tea Friday at a shop in a crowded alleyway in Kasimpasa, Erdogan’s home neighborhood in Istanbul and a stronghold of his support. Yancin said that he respected Erdogan for his efforts to rid the country of the influence of the military, which intervened through coups four times between 1960 and 1997 but now appears sidelined.

Another supporter said he was cautious about the current protest situation.

Erdogan “has done good things for this country. Roads, economic development, many things. The country was in debt to the IMF. Now it isn’t,” said Yesar Ozdemir, 50, who runs a home construction business. But “he was better in the past. Lately his aggressive comments have changed things a bit.”

Erdogan was waiting Friday for a response to his concessions from the protesters. Earlier in the day, in a speech to party members in Ankara, he addressed the demonstration in Istanbul.

“You have done enough sitting around in the park,” he said. “Don’t let us be forced into reverting to different measures.”

But inside Gezi Park, many people said their aims had long moved beyond whether the barracks would be built.

“We are not here just for trees,” said Didem Canturoglu, 25, a musician. “We are here for lots of reasons. So the meeting wasn’t very helpful.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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