‘Democracy is like a train’: Turkey protests for dummies

Protestors throw back tear gas canisters as they fight police to occupy Taksim Square June 1, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: Getty Images
Protestors throw back tear gas canisters as they fight police to occupy Taksim Square June 1, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: Getty Images

What’s happening with the Turkish protests?

The protests that started last week in response to the government’s plan to abolish Istanbul’s last green space to make space for a replica of 19th century Ottoman barracks are continuing. Now they’re not just a protest against the construction plans but also against the government. However, the protests haven’t gained momentum as dramatically as the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt did.

How has the government responded? 

First with excessive force, then with apologies, and now it’s trying to justify its actions. But even though the government seems to have the stronger position right now, the protests have exposed widespread dissatisfaction with the government among the population.

Isn’t Prime Minister Erdogan’s government democratically elected?

Yes, but since being elected 10 years ago, Erdogan has ruled with a heavy hand. He famously stated that “democracy is like a train. You take it where you have to go, and then you get off”. And while Turkey is a secular state, Mr. Erdogan and the government are accused of trying to make it Islamist. His youngest daughter, who wears a headscarf went to university in the US because, as Mr. Erdogan explained, “there she’s allowed to wear a headscarf”. Turkish universities ban headscarves.

Is there any evidence to support the accusation that the government is trying to make Turkey Islamist?

It depends on whom you ask. But in a cause célèbre earlier this year, the world-famous Turkish pianist Fazil Say was given a 10-month suspended jail sentence for blasphemy, stemming from tweets like this one: “I am not sure if you have also realized it, but all the pricks, low-lives, buffoons, thieves, jesters, they are all Allahists.” (Say will be retried later this year.)


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