Ataturk, an Ottoman-era military officer who fought pitched battles to reclaim Turkish land after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, presided over the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. He ruled with a tight grip until his death in 1938, establishing many of the institutions of the modern country but also, critics say, giving the military outsize power that lasted until Erdogan finally took it back under civilian control.
The long legacy of Erdogan’s less-than-enthusiastic embrace of Ataturk made the decision this week to hang the massive banner of the founder’s image on the empty Ataturk Cultural Center facing Taksim all the more striking, analysts said. Until now, even the way Erdogan and his allies referred to the man — by his name at birth, Mustafa Kemal, rather than by the honorific Ataturk that was bestowed on him four years before he died — showed a certain reserve about glorifying him.
“The government, by pulling down all these different slogans and putting up the flags and the image of Ataturk, might be saying we are one nation, one flag, under the image of Mustafa Kemal,” said Zafer Uskul, a constitutional law professor at Dogus University who is a former member of the Justice and Development Party and has criticized it for its violent response to the protests.
Just how long Ataturk will retain his newly privileged position is unclear. His image has slowly been retreating from Turkish life under Erdogan’s rule, although it is still common everywhere from offices to subway stations to roadside placards. Erdogan has vowed to tear down the cultural center on which the banner hangs and replace it with an opera house.
And Erdogan’s mixed signals on Thursday — meeting with protesters and offering a referendum for the first time on the plans to raze Gezi Park but also saying that “we have arrived at the end of our patience” — led many protesters to expect clashes similar to those on Tuesday, when riot police swept Taksim Square with tear gas and water cannons in an all-day effort to reestablish control.
After that effort, protesters defiantly turned out in even greater numbers — but the ubiquity of helmets and makeshift gas masks in Gezi Park on Thursday suggested that many people were preparing for the worst. Many rejected the idea of a referendum.
“It’s a silly sign of democracy,” said Burcu Gozetici, 30, a dentist. “We’ve seen lots of referendums in Turkey. But we don’t believe the electoral system is fair.”