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What Prompted The Protests In Turkey?


For some insight now into the roots of the Turkish protests, we turn to Turkish newspaper columnist, Asli Aydintasbas. She's been a frequent critic of Prime Minister Erdogan's justice and development party, the AKP, and she joins us from Istanbul. Welcome to the program.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Hi. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: As we've heard, Prime Minister Erdogan says the protests result from cooperation between the secular social democratic opposition and some marginal groups. Is this, as he says, mainly an organized political effort?

AYDINTASBAS: Well, that's not what saw the other day when I stood nearly the whole day in Taksim Square, which is where the protests originated, where the park is, the Gezi Park. I saw just sort of random people, lots and lots of women, but then sort of once they opened up the square, really ordinary people. I mean, I would generally say it's secular folk, probably large, you know, people who've not voted for AKP and the prime minister.

There were gay/lesbian organizations, lots of university students. It's basically people who felt left out.

SIEGEL: But this isn't just a protest about urban planning and clearing out old buildings to make a new shopping center. There's a lot more grievance behind all this, no?

AYDINTASBAS: Definitely. I mean, and these are not a bunch of tree huggers either. In the sense that this is coming on the heels of a very Draconian bill restricting the sale of alcohol. I've seen a lot of people were drinking on Saturday after the protest, as a protest more than anything else. But there's other things, of course. You know, I don't want an overhaul of the whole system, from parliamentary system to a presidential system, but don't think of American-style presidency.

They want a Turkish-style presidency and I think people have fears that it will lead to a sultanate already. We have the concentration of power at the hands of the prime minister. So I think that this is a bunch of things, including, definitely including, his designs for a presidency.

SIEGEL: And we should just say there is a president of Turkey, but he is limited to being head of state. This remains a parliamentary prime ministerial system that really wields power. How are the Turkish news media covering all this?

AYDINTASBAS: Not well at all. I have to say, on Saturday when I was out in the square, there were frequent chants of something like sold media or down with media. And on social media, on Twitter as well, there are protests of Turkish news networks, in particular. And today, there was a rally outside a TV network. The government does have a huge say over media and how things are reported.

As well, in this particular case, I mean, the last couple of days, documentaries about penguins, dolphins and training of dolphins and now a concert the other night. While the entire country was up in flames we had news networks broadcasting anything but the news. So I think that people are reacting to that.

SIEGEL: In the elections, Erdogan has done incredibly well. Is his position in Turkey really at all threatened by this kind of wave of protest or is he still the person who more conservative, more religious Turks support implicitly?

AYDINTASBAS: I think Erdogan is still highly popular and has a strong conservative base. The problem is, he's really not made bridges with the people who've not voted for them. He's frequently introduced either conservative legislation or used very, very harsh language, which makes people who've not voted for him threatened. I think stuff like cases and indictments against journalists have also made people feel very uneasy.

And I think that largely the problem has been the concentration of power. Today, the prime minister decides on every aspect of our lives. He is a benevolent leader, let's say. He's very efficient in terms of bridges and making trains run on time and development and running the economy, but he also decides on what we should eat and drink and how many kids we should have - which is three, as he often stresses.

So, you know, how we should conduct our daily affairs. There's a sense in the country that there's no checks and balances but one very extremely strong leader.

SIEGEL: Asli, thank you very much for talking with us.


SIEGEL: That's Asli Aydintasbas. She's a columnist for the Turkish newspaper, Milliyet. She spoke to us from Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.