ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) said that he would consider holding a referendum on plans to redevelop an Istanbul park that have sparked nationwide protests, in his first major concession in nearly two weeks of anti-government unrest.
The gesture came as thousands gathered in the city’s Taksim Square, next to Gezi Park, for a 13th evening of demonstrations. The mood was subdued and peaceful, in stark contrast to the previous night when protesters fought running battles with riot police.
“We might put it to a referendum . . . In democracies only the will of the people counts,” said Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party after talks between Erdogan and protest leaders. “We think that after this gesture of goodwill people will decide to go home.”
A campaign to save Gezi Park’s trees from being razed to make way for a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks was met with a heavy-handed police response on May 31. The crackdown sparked a countrywide outpouring of anger against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Hundreds have since been camping out in Gezi Park. Police have not interfered with the tent city that has sprung up there, but on Tuesday they retook Taksim Square, the focal point of the protest movement.
Officers fired tear gas and water cannon at tens of thousands of demonstrators, some of whom hurled back fireworks and molotov cocktails.
Erdogan has faced international condemnation over his handling of the crisis, which has left four dead and injured nearly 5,000 demonstrators, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
The premier has repeatedly warned that he was running out of patience with the demonstrators, but he held out on olive branch by meeting with some of the protest representatives.
The representatives, a loose coalition of environmental campaigners, did not comment on the referendum proposal after the talks. Critics say they do not speak for most of the protesters and were cherry-picked for the meeting with the premier.
Meanwhile, riot police backed by armored water cannon trucks looked on as demonstrators gathered peacefully around a piano in Taksim Square for a live concert, sporadically chanting: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!”
Protesters’ demonstrating in the Turkish capital Ankara were once again subjected to a police crackdown with riot police firing tear gas overnight Wednesday to disperse some 2,000 people who were clustered in Tunali street, one of the central spots for mass anti-government rallies.
Earlier in the day, thousands of lawyers took to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara in protest at the brief detention of over 70 colleagues Tuesday after they objected to the police violently reclaiming Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since June 1.