Turkey govt floats idea of referendum on park as sop to protestors

By bne IntelliNews June 13, 2013

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be applying the carrot-and-stick approach in trying to end the protests that have rocked the country for the past two weeks, with demonstrators saying they are preparing themselves for another police raid to clear the rest of the protestors on Thursday, June 13.

While ordering his interior minister on Wednesday, June 12 to end all anti-government protests within 24 hours, officials from AKP were floating the possibility of holding a referendum on the controversial plans to redevelop Istanbul's Gezi Park next to Taksim Square. It was those plans, which included re-building an Ottoman-era army barracks, that caused the first local, low-profile protests that snowballed into anti-government demonstrations across the country on May 31 due to the police's initially heavy-handed response.

Overnight into the morning of Thursday, June 13, protestors chanted and sang in Istanbul's Taksim Square in defiance of the government's order to leave. The numbers were less than those in previous days, after riot police violently cleared many protesters from the square on Tuesday, June 11 during the day and then overnight.

It was during a Wednesday, June 12 meeting with some of the protestors (or those picked by the government to respresent them, which included artists, architects and a social media specialist) that PM Erdogan, who's increasingly authoritarian style and Islamist tendencies is a target for many of the protestors, floated the idea of a referendum. Kutlug Ataman, a filmmaker who attended the meeting, told CNN that Mr Erdogan had said he would propose a referendum on the issue to the AKP's decision-making committee.

The deputy chairman of the AKP told media he is open to the idea of a referendum. "We might put it to a referendum... In democracies only the will of the people counts," Huseyin Celik said. "We think that after this gesture of goodwill, people will decide to go home." The BBC's James Reynolds in Istanbul says Celik's comments represent the first time that the AKP has openly discussed letting voters decide what happens to the park.

But those in the park and Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group seen as most representative of the protesters, said the group that met Erdogan did not speak for them. "As police violence continues mercilessly... these meetings will in no way lead to a solution," a statement from Taksim Solidarity said.

Thus the stage is set for more violence Thursday, June 13. Protesters told reporters that they were girding for a police raid that they expected to come this morning. Meanwhile, there were also reports of renewed clashes on Wednesday, June 12 between security forces and demonstrators in the capital, Ankara. Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters in the city centre, the AFP news agency reports.

Many are also sceptical of the government's idea to hold a referendum, saying it's merely a ruse to end the protests and construction would continue unabated. "They first tell us to go home, and then they present the idea of the referendum?" Bora Ekrem, a student, was quoted by the NYT as asking. "How can we trust them? If they were sincere about a vote, they would not ask us to leave the park. We will not leave until they declare the park is ours."

Indeed, there is little evidence elsewhere that the government is changing its hard-line approach.

The NYT reports that at a meeting in Ankara with representatives of the Confederation of Turkish Tradesmen and Craftsmen, a labour union, Erdogan dismissed international criticism of his handling of the protests and claimed that Turkish intelligence knew three months ago about local and foreign efforts to inflict chaos in Turkey, according to a union official who attended the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"There are people who claim this is the Turkish Spring, but what they do not see is that Turkey has been living through its spring since 2002," said Erdogan, referring to the year his political party won a majority of seats in Parliament. "By tomorrow at the latest, the Gezi Park incident will end... This is a public park, not an area of occupation."

Taking a leaf from Russian President Vladimir Putin's playbook, Erdogan accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of stoking conflict and trying to undermine the economy of the only largely Muslim Nato state. According to Reuters, two foreign correspondents from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) were detained by police on Wednesday, June 12 and Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said on his Twitter account that he had called the Turkish ambassador to voice concern. CBC quoted the Turkish ambassador to Canada as saying the journalists were expected to be released shortly.

Turkey's broadcasting authority said it was fining four television channels over their coverage of the protests on the grounds of inciting violence, media reports said. This was without a hint of irony, since it the cowed media's failure to cover the start of the protests, in one case instead showing a documentary on penguins, that have caused such international worry about the state of Turkey's democracy.

Turkish assets, which have been very volatile since the protests began in earnest, stabilised on Wednesday, June 12. The Borsa Istanbul Stock Exchange's main National 100 Index ended up 2.45% at 76,880.63. The Turkish currency gained almost 1% to 1.8743 per dollar in afternoon trade, trimming its loss this month to less than 0.1%, while yields on two-year benchmark bonds fell two basis points to 6.80%, declining from the highest level since November 7, according to Bloomberg.

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