Turkish security forces moved on protesters in a public square in Istanbul on the anniversary of last year’s anti-government demonstrations.
Police used tear gas and water cannon Saturday to push demonstrators back at Istanbul’s Taksin square.
The protest echoes gatherings in Turkey’s main cities last year, when demonstrations against development plans for a park turned into marches against government authoritarianism. Thousands were injured and at least 12 people died in clashes between demonstrators and police in 2013.
On Friday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Turkey’s young people not to get involved in the planned demonstrations.
Although Erdogan said Turkey’s youth would not respond to the calls to demonstrate, fifty water cannon trucks and helicopters were deployed ahead of Saturday’s events. Roads leading to Taksim Square were blocked and public transportation halted to prevent access to the protest site.
Last year’s civic unrest ignited when police brutally evicted a handful of environmentalists protecting Istanbul’s Gezi Park from government plans to turn it into a shopping mall.
The protests quickly evolved into a broader expression of discontent over the government and the prime minister’s perceived authoritarianism, spreading to nearly every Turkish city. But the epicenter was Gezi Park and adjacent Taksim Square, which became a focus of global attention.
“It was very emotional when I saw tens of thousands of people marching towards Taksim,” said protester Mehmet Ergen. “It’s an awakening more than anything else.”
Observers say what set the Gezi protests apart from previous unrest was that most participants were part of a young, educated and, until then, largely apolitical middle class.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Political Centre says even though there has not been a repeat of protests on the same scale as those held in 2013, the persistent anti-Erdogan sentiment remains the biggest threat to the prime minister’s rule.
“The official opposition is nothing for him, but he still fears Gezi,” he said. “This type of protest without political colors and without well-defined political leadership is not controllable.
“He hates this. He demonizes Gezi just because of that.”
A claim of conspiracy
Erdogan has long has insisted the Gezi uprising was an international conspiracy against him, prompting security forces to crack down heavily on any protests.
The government has since introduced sweeping legislation extending the powers of its intelligence agency and controlling the Internet; all steps to prevent and contain major outbreaks of unrest. Such moves have only fueled allegations of authoritarianism from his critics.
But Erdogan says his ruling AK Party’s decisive victory in local elections in March only vindicate his policies.
According to Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar for the Carnegie Institute in Brussels, the recent AK Party triumph, along with the prospect of victory in upcoming elections, could undermine any calls to renew anti-government protests.
“There is now an electoral cycle in process, … [which] allows people to vent their frustrations at the ballot box … and therefore they might not feel the need to take it out on the street,” he said.
For protestor Ergen, the Gezi anniversary brings mixed emotions.
“I feel disillusioned,” he said. “I think the government has not changed. But there is a sense that it can happen again so that’s exciting. We will wait and see.”
The government does not appear to be taking any chances. Major security operations are being enforced in Istanbul and several other major cities.
Observers say the scale of the operation is an indication that one year on, Erdogan still sees the Gezi movement as a threat to his rule.