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Turkish Liberals Turn Their Backs on Erdogan 20 juin 2013

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) Thursday, June 20, 2013, p. A 10

By Tim Arango, Istanbul

For Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the antigovernment protests that have shaken Turkey have come with a jarring paradox: some of the protesters voted for him, most prospered from his economic policies, and some of the liberal intellectuals and columnists now calling him a dictator helped him win three successive elections with their writings.

For Turkey’s liberals and urban elite, including some among the young, middle-class protesters who camped out in Gezi Park in Taksim Square here, the intense police crackdown — the use of tear gas and water cannons, and the detention of protesters, lawyers, journalists and medics — represented the final and most painful break with Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.

« The Gezi Park-Taksim thing has been the breaking point for the left, » said Cengiz Candar, a popular columnist who once supported Mr. Erdogan for his efforts to reduce the power of the military and to pursue membership in the European Union.

« It’s not us that changed, » he added. « We remain as democrats; we want to extend individual liberties. »

As Mr. Erdogan rose to power, many liberals, unlike members of Turkey’s old secular elite, who worried about a hidden Islamist agenda, overlooked Mr. Erdogan’s religious roots. They saw his faith in the context of personal freedom, not as a threat to Turkey’s secular tradition. They embraced him for his pursuit of European Union membership, now stalled, and for securing civilian authority over the military, whose influence had been pre-eminent in Turkey.

Turks were joined by many Europeans and Americans, including President Obama, who embraced the democratic reforms that Mr. Erdogan implemented. Now, many of those onetime supporters say Mr. Erdogan and his party have taken a decisive turn toward authoritarianism, leaving them to face a period of self-reflection.

« I was one of the European liberals who supported A.K.P. policies, » said Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European Parliament and columnist who lives in Turkey, referring to the Turkish initials of Mr. Erdogan’s party. « There was a lot of sympathy for the reforms they were implementing. »

Mr. Lagendijk said that he was never an ideological bedfellow of the A.K.P., but that he was attracted by Mr. Erdogan’s early pragmatism and by his support for constitutional changes to secure individual liberties and advances in rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

« I’m a Green, I’m a liberal, » he said. « I’m not conservative or religious, but it didn’t matter. »

These days, Mr. Lagendijk has had to fend off critics from his own liberal flank, who have been sending him Twitter messages and e-mails that all conveyed the same message: We told you so.

Over the past few years, Mr. Erdogan had begun alienating his liberal supporters by intimidating the news media and pursuing large urban development projects without public feedback. Then in recent weeks a group of protesters trying to save a city park from demolition were met with a fierce police response, setting off the larger antigovernment street movement that challenged Mr. Erdogan, whose response to the crisis confirmed for many of his former supporters that he had taken a path they could no longer support.

Beyond his democratic promises, many experts say Mr. Erdogan’s charisma won over many liberals years ago.

Jenny B. White, an anthropologist at Boston University, spent time in Turkey in the 1990s researching the rise of Islamist movements, and followed Mr. Erdogan around while he was mayor of Istanbul.

« He would ignore a table of bearded mayors after an event and talk to me like I was the only person in the world, » she said. « There is that aspect of it that really captured people. »

She added, « The liberals voted for him because when he was elected in 2002 he did all these things liberals only dreamed of. »

Not all on the left have broken with Mr. Erdogan. Nursuna Memecan, a member of Parliament from the A.K.P. who is close to Mr. Erdogan and identifies herself as a liberal, said she helped arrange meetings between some of the protest leaders and Mr. Erdogan in hope of brokering a compromise, and winning back some of his former supporters. That did not happen, though, as a tentative deal to save the park was disavowed by most protesters, and Mr. Erdogan ordered a decisive police raid on Saturday to clear the park.

Referring to Mr. Erdogan’s rise to power, Ms. Memecan said: « The real liberals supported him. They had no prejudices against him or his religion or what class he came from. His piousness did not bother them. »

Another paradox of Turkey’s uprising is that many of those now critical of his position — a cross section of urban, secular, mostly middle-class Turks — have benefited from the growing economy that Mr. Erdogan’s liberalizing policies created.

Merve Alici, 26, works in advertising and participated in the protests. She comes from a secular, upper-middle-class family, but voted for Mr. Erdogan’s party in the last election despite warnings from her family that the prime minister was becoming too powerful.

She said her choice was « mainly pragmatic. »

« First, there was no opposition, and I liked how the A.K.P. challenged the army’s power, » she said. « Then there is the economy. Everyone wants stability and economic prosperity, and this was a campaign promise. »

She said she took part in the Taksim Square demonstrations every day, and because of that she could never vote for Mr. Erdogan again, especially after he called the protesters terrorists and unleashed riot police officers on the crowds.

« He is a political mastermind and is manipulating the truth on purpose to keep his voters, » Ms. Alici said. « He antagonizes the protesters on purpose with his harsh words. I don’t know what he is thinking. »

Another former Erdogan supporter who joined in the protests was Esen Guler, 39, a guitarist whose band played in the square.

« I voted for Erdogan in the past two elections because I thought he would lead us to democracy, » he said. « But power has gone to his head. He is no longer moderate, but a brutal dictator attacking his own flesh and blood. »

Workers have been planting flowers in Taksim Square and scrubbing away the spray-painted epithets against Mr. Erdogan. When the square was filled with thousands of protesters, many of them young and expressing themselves politically for the first time, a common refrain among analysts was that Turkish politics would never be the same. Now that the square has been emptied by the strong hand of the police, the significance of what happened feels less certain.

« The wounds are still fresh, » Mr. Candar said. « The lessons to be interpreted are still at an early stage. It’s hard to say how it will be different, but for sure it will be different. »

Ceylan Yeginsu contributed reporting.


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