Erdo-gone? After Taksim, Turkish Leader’s Political Future May Hang in the Balance

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By Sunday night, most of the businesses on Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s biggest pedestrian street, seemed to have had their front teeth knocked in. ATM screens glared and winked stupidly from behind broken glass monitors. Display windows were smashed up, facades and metal shutters covered with antigovernment graffiti. Near Bekar Street, young people had taken over a number of buildings. Music, along with leftist banners, wafted out from their windows. Profiting from the lack of police, which had withdrawn from the area on June 1, vendors at the northern end of the street hawked bottles of beer, in plain and symbolic defiance of a recent ban on retail sales of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. (The bill, rushed through by parliament last week, hasn’t yet been signed into law by President Abdullah Gul.)

At Gezi Park, the scene of a sit-in that had been repeatedly and violently dispersed by the police last week, fueling popular outrage as well as mass demonstrations and violent clashes in dozens of Turkish cities, the mood was jubilant. The park, whose planned demolition and conversion into a shopping mall styled as a replica of an Ottoman barracks and shopping arcade made it ground zero of the protests, brimmed with groups of young men and women camped out on the grass. They lit campfires and chanted slogans demanding the resignation of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the adjacent Taksim Square, normally heaving with traffic, thousands of protesters sang, waved Turkish flags and locked hands in a traditional line dance. Vendors sold roast chestnuts, cucumbers and slices of watermelon.

(MORE: Is Taksim Erdogan’s Tahrir Square?)

A few hundred yards away, beyond the scorched skeletons of three city buses, the landscape appeared even more surreal. Down the hill, waves of people attempting to reach protesters in another part of the city hurled themselves against lines of policemen, some throwing the gas canisters fired against them over the walls of a nearby soccer stadium, others ripping up road signs and giant billboards to construct barricades. The 20-floor InterContinental, a five-star hotel, appeared unmoved by the chaos below. Unlike most of the businesses on Istiklal, it had somehow emerged unscathed — no broken windows, not even a trace of graffiti. Inside its spacious, pristine lobby, young people in gas masks and construction helmets chatted animatedly, lounged on sofas and charged their phone batteries as small groups of bewildered tourists looked on. The hotel, it turned out, had decided to open its doors to the protesters.

A pair of young women — one in jean shorts and a fashionable pink hoodie, the other in sweatpants and a white T-shirt, both heavily made up — stretched out on a pair of chairs. Only a pair of snorkeling goggles and a gas mask wrapped around the neck of the one in the hoodie made it clear they weren’t just friends reclining after a day of shopping.

“I voted in every election, but I never really cared that much about politics,” said Pelin Cavdur, the girl in the sweatpants. It was her first time demonstrating anything, she added. “I’m fighting to protect my way of life. Erdogan’s playing with our future, he’s not letting us breathe.”

(PHOTOS: Turkey’s Mass Protests)

“Everyone’s agitated, there’s too many bans, the alcohol law, the ban on people kissing in public,” said her friend Tugba Orbay, referring to a recent warning issued by Ankara subway officials to act “in accordance with moral rules” after security cameras recorded a couple kissing. “Everyone feels like Turkey is becoming Iran,” she said. “The cup has overflowed.”

“It’s good that people have come out en masse. Erdogan felt that he was more powerful than the people,” she added. “But now the tables have turned.”

Erdogan himself does not see it that way. Throughout the protests, he has remained defiant, refusing to acknowledge the protesters as anything more than “marginal elements.” In a series of TV appearances on Sunday, he dismissed them as “looters” and “bums,” called Twitter a “scourge” and seemed to suggest that anyone who drank alcohol was an alcoholic. The significance of his only concession — that Gezi Park would not be converted into a shopping mall after all — faded immediately when he declared that he would proceed with plans to build a mosque in Taksim, whether the protesters or the main opposition liked it or not. On Monday, ignoring suggestions that he should adjust his travel plans, and downplaying the protests’ importance, he departed on a four-day tour to North Africa.

(MORE: Erdogan’s Tricky Ties With the U.S.)

It was exactly the kind of imperious behavior that has riled Erdogan’s critics in recent years and which made him, more than anything or anyone else, the target of the ongoing protests. First elected in 2002, Erdogan has since marched his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to two more consecutive victories in the polls, including a landslide win in 2011, in which the AKP won 50% of the vote, nearly twice as much as the main opposition. In its first years at the helm, Erdogan’s government passed a number of democratic reforms, reducing the power of the once omnipotent, ever meddling military, granting new cultural rights to the country’s Kurdish minority, and cracking down on police torture and honor crimes against women.

Around 2005, however, just as accession negotiations with the E.U. commenced, its reformist zeal began to fizzle. The E.U. talks have since ground to a halt, and Erdogan seems to have busied himself with consolidating power across all institutions of the state and keeping the roaring economy on track, while jailing opponents inside the military and harassing dissenting journalists. With his power almost unchecked, the protesters say, he has grown increasingly patronizing, domineering and allergic to criticism.

(MORE: TIME’s 2011 Interview With Prime Minister Erdogan)

Today, however, after a week of protests that have left at least two people dead and 3,000 injured, Erdogan may be becoming more vulnerable than ever. While the vast majority of the Prime Minister’s electorate seems to have stayed at home — most of the protesters TIME encountered were leftists, students and secularists, people who had never voted for Erdogan in the first place — there are signs of dissent among his political allies. Zaman, a newspaper owned by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a powerful Muslim cleric who had until recently remained close to Erdogan, and whose followers are said to be a powerful force within the Turkish bureaucracy and the police, has run a number of critical articles. In Monday’s edition, Ihsan Dagi, a veteran commentator, slammed Erdogan and his government for their “I’ll do as I please” attitude. A number of AKP bigwigs, meanwhile, though far from openly defying Erdogan, have shown they are not reading from the same script as their leader.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized for the excessive use of force by the police, acknowledging that the Gezi protesters, with the exception of “marginal and illegal groups,” had “shown their legitimate, logical and righteous reaction.” He later agreed to meet with protest leaders on Wednesday morning. As of Tuesday evening, thousands of people were still out on the streets in Istanbul, but the clashes had died down. “In the short run, this has weakened Erdoğan,” Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a former member of Parliament, told TIME. “Overall, many AK supporters are unhappy with how he dealt with this.”

(MORE: Erdogan and Turkey’s Ottoman Past)

The biggest challenge to Erdogan may have come from President Gul, who helped the Prime Minister mold the AKP from an outlawed Islamist party in 2001 into a regional political juggernaut. Gul, who has served as President for the past six years, is yet to announce whether he intends to run again in 2014, a decision that would pit him directly against Erdogan, who is known to covet the post and, after two terms, is no longer eligible to run for Prime Minister. Over the course of the protests, however, Gul has made it clear that he and the Prime Minister have drifted apart. When Erdogan insisted in an interview that people should exercise their democratic rights at the ballot box and not on the streets, Gul, within hours, retorted that democracy consisted of more than elections. Perhaps it was no coincidence that, after the President’s remarks, the news networks — previously cowed into a blackout — began covering the protests around the clock.

While the protests are yet to acquire the kind of critical mass that would force Erdogan to even consider stepping down as Prime Minister, the next few days may be crucial to his hopes of winning the presidency next year. “If he comes back from Africa, takes a conciliatory tone, he may have time to bounce back,” says Kınıklıoğlu.