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Turkey's Protests Are An Impediment For Its Prime Minister


In Turkey over the weekend, police used water cannons against demonstrators in Taksim Square. The latest confrontation comes at a delicate time. Turkey is waiting a decision on whether it will host the 2020 Olympic Games.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul that Turks are wondering if the government will react with even tighter restrictions on descent, or bend to demands for greater political openness.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: There are a few important lessons that could be drawn from the Turkish unrest. For one thing, a young generation born in the 1990s and generally dismissed as materialistic and apolitical is turning out to be plugged into global trends and keenly interested in having a more open and moderate country to live in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Turkish spoken)

KENYON: And now that downtown Gezi Park is closed to demonstrations, groups of young people are meeting in other parts around Istanbul. A young woman who gives her name as Ezgi(ph) and her profession as artist says it's inspiring to see people stand up for their rights.

EZGI: They are very young people who have no political point of view, which was like really new. Mostly, they are, like, middle class. The main thing about this movement in Syria, in Brazil is about more freedom. You know, people are connected.

KENYON: Journalist and Professor Ibul Os Caragos(ph) says a key question is whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be pulled back from his apparent drive to demonize the demonstrators as foreign-backed terrorists out to damage the country. If not, she (unintelligible) Turkey could be headed for dangerous waters.

IBUL OS CARAGOS: It's not just (unintelligible) or young people demonstrating for ecological and personal rights. This country is at the crossroads of a lot of political influences, and it has always been. So, Erdogan has to be brought back a sensible path.

KENYON: The early signs suggest punishment is still high on Erdogan's agenda. Several journalists have been detained, many working for self-described alternative media. The prime minister has condemned social media as a menace and various officials have been proposing new regulations aimed at Twitter, complaining that the micro blogging site doesn't share user information with the government. Professor Uzgar Utchgoon(ph), a new media expert at Bilgi University says taking on social media is no easy task.

UZGAR UTCHGOON: As you know, social media is technically something different. It's not like blogs. It's a huge and massive real-time stream. Technically, it's not easy to censor or control it.

KENYON: Utchgoon says that may be why the government is also threatening to criminalize opposition content on social media in an effort to intimidate users into censoring themselves. But despite the hard line signals, there are those who argue that this crisis present Erdogan and the ruling party, the AKP, with an opportunity to reverse what critics are calling Turkey's slide toward authoritarian rule. Sewat Kanickiole(ph), who is a former lawmaker for the AKP, he says a growing faction within the party is taking note of Erdogan's slipping poll numbers as he pursues his hardline strategy.

SEWAT KANICKIOLE: I think he's hoping to bolster his base. But I think many people inside the party think otherwise and are more concerned about the widespread discontent that came to the surface.

KENYON: Kanickiole says the AKP needs to absorb another important lesson from this unrest. Turkey's new middle class, which blossomed thanks to the policies of the AKP, is now behaving not like the new conservative majority the prime minister may be hoping for, but more like a typical middle class, desiring more civil liberties and freedoms.

KANICKIOLE: So, this is a middle-class phenomenon and cannot be classified only as a sort of secular sort of event. It's much more complicated than that. And therefore its strength actually derives from that. And it's people from all walks of all, from different generations have been standing up.

KENYON: On paper, the case for ceasing this morning to move toward a more pluralistic society is compelling. Erdogan has promised to deliver a new constitution for years now. He urgently needs certain judicial and political reforms to make sure the delicate effort to make peace with the Kurdish minority doesn't fail, and he'd like to restore his reputation as a reform-minded leader before deciding whether to seek the presidency next year. But even those making that case admit they're not sure Erdogan is inclined to listen to those arguments right now. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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