Hitting a road bump

President Abdullah Gül sent a couple of messages that underlined the spirit of soft power.

“Democracy is not just about voting [someone into power]; the message has been received. What is necessary will be done,” he said.

On Tuesday it was Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s turn (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in North Africa for a visit).

Apologizing for the police brutality and promising a halt to the pepper spray, Arınç said he would meet with the protesters and raised the possibility of a referendum on the Taksim project. He promised that the government will, from now on, inform the public in detail before every planned piece of legislation, including plans related to Taksim Square, and will take into account what the people have to say. In between the lines, Arınç, in his own blunt way, sent a critical missive to Erdoğan for his arrogant, polarizing tone.

With the prospects of new eruptions of anger still unpredictable, it seems that it is now time for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to contemplate the damage and, if possible, repair it.

Nobody contests the fact that Erdoğan’s absence from the social scene has left others from the government some leeway to establish calm and reason.

And it is no coincidence that it is up to Gül and Arınç to roll up their sleeves. Both, together with Erdoğan, are founding fathers of the AKP and have enjoyed respect, a considerable amount of influence and representation from the electorate. They are also known for their gentle, empathic approach and for their political wisdom over the big picture.

The question is will these statements cut it? According to Arınç, the physical damage of the clashes so far is over $70 million. Surely, it is way beyond that given the affect on foreign tourism, etc. The main issue is the abyss-like scar the violent revolt, the brutality of police and Erdoğan’s escalation have left on the psyche of the people, and its spillover effects of politics. If the two founding fathers decide to take the matter into their hands, they have two major challenges.

The first one is urgent. The youth in revolt must be calmed down. If the pepper spray usage is stopped immediately, it will have a positive effect. I spent many hours on Monday night among people in Taksim Square, and understood clearly how enraged they became as they were indiscriminately gassed. “They want to make us feel like cockroaches to be exterminated! We hate them!” shouted a couple to me, as they passed by. The crowds, sitting calmly and singing, almost none of them sipping a beer or any other alcoholic beverage, are also infuriated at the sight of police choppers circling above them with spotlights.

But these questions remain: Who will be able to persuade the huge crowd to leave the square, parks and surrounding areas, and how will it happen? This has to happen as quickly as possible because each day the risks of provocations, and even terrorist acts, increase.

Another issue is how Erdoğan, still staunchly defiant in his refusal to acknowledge his mistakes and erratic behavior, will be brought into a conciliatory state, as Gül, Arınç and several other AKP “wise people” desire. Everybody knows that sooner or later he will have to face the issue, and be asked by media, and express his views. Everybody also knows that he has to back down; if he can, he should articulate regret. Or, at least, tone down his rhetoric of paternalism and humiliation.

Is Erdoğan aware that he has for the first time in his political journey hit a big road bump, which has been built by the people and not any “deep state” structure? He may be. If so, he has much to think about: He has to stop playing the mayor of İstanbul, which he is not. He has to stop “trying to discipline the entire society as he deals with his own party” (as İhsan Dağı in the Zaman daily noted); stop marginalizing politics with such polarizing threats as “I can push out a million people onto the streets”; stop taking control over the media and accept that there will always be some people in Turkey who may not like him or his policies, and demand freedom and dignity to say so.

Given the weight of these bitter truths, all one can do is wait and see how he deals with the new situation.

2013-06-04

 

 

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