Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with with protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park on Thursday. The protests in the iconic city square started two weeks ago, focused on a plan to bulldoze the park and turn it into a mall. Those protests have since grown to include more space — and more political dissent.
The prime minister’s party has recommended a referendum to decide whether the park stays or goes. It woudn’t be legally binding, but Erdogan said he’d respect the outcome.
However, today he also said the protesters better get out of the park, quickly.
“Our patience is at an end. I am making my warning for the last time,” Erdogan said.
And what began as a protest about the fate of a single park has mushroomed into a national conversation about Erdogan and his government.
“We’re just business reporters, we’re here to do the business,” said the BBC’s Nkem Ifejika from Istanbul. “But of course you try to do something as simple as have lunch and you’ve got tear gas in your face. And I must say if you haven’t experienced tear gas before, they call it tear gas for a reason.”
On one hand, Erdogan enjoys quite a bit of support. The economy has improved significantly during his time as prime minister.
“You have members of the business community who like what prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done over the past 10 years. He rescued them from a crisis,” said Ifejika, citing Turkey’s 3 percent growth rate in the first quarter of this year.
Compare that to the fledgling U.S. recovery, he said.
“President Obama would give a limb to have that kind of growth rate,” said Ifejika. “The people, to a certain extent, have economic freedom. But it appears that what they want is political freedom. Especially the young people say, ‘Yes, we’ve got money in our pockets, but we don’t want you to tell us what we do with that money.'”
It’s not only the population of Turkey with a two-fold view on economic progress. The country has long sought membership in the European Union, while at the same time seeking alternative markets for their exports.
Turkish companies are “looking elsewhere for their bread,” Ifejika said. “They’re not going to wait for the European Union to pick up, because who knows when that will happen?”
Meanwhile, tension and unrest have left Turks nervous. And so too, the markets.
“Families are not going out… and it’s not because anything is going to happen to them,” said Ifejika. “Nobody likes instability, least of all investors.”