Pro-secular Turkish demonstrators took to the streets of Ankara to protest against what they consider an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist government. Turkish police greeted the banned rally participants with tear gas and water cannons.
Today marked the 89th anniversary of Turkey’s founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Many of the secular Turks protesting today fear that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who last year won a third term with 50 percent of the vote, and his conservative AK Party have Islamist tendencies, which could threaten the secular republic founded by Ataturk.
The Ankara local leadership banned the rally citing security reasons and claiming it has evidence suggesting that the protest could be used to provoke the current political leadership.
Contesting the ban, tens of thousands of people gathered near the building of Turkey’s first parliament to march to Ataturk’s mausoleum. While the protest was occurring, governmental officials celebrated the day by attending the traditional military parade organized every year on this occasion.
However, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) set up by Ataturk in 1924, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, boycotted the official celebrations in order to attend the opposition gathering. He later on criticized the police’s violent handling of the event and emphasized that all that people had been doing was to celebrate the republic.
Under Current Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership for the past decade, Turkey has experienced unprecedented economic growth and reduced the power of the military, which had staged three coups since the 1960s. Turkey has also won the respect of many Western nations wishing to portray it as democratic model in a particularly troubled region.
Nevertheless, the Turkish Prime Minister is increasingly criticized for the authoritarian style of his rule. Hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists have been arrested or are on trial under accusations of plotting against the government. This month, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a report accusing Turkey of being the country with the largest number of imprisoned journalists, surpassing countries such as Iran and China.
Simultaneously, Kurdish groups accuse the government of arresting more than 7,000 Kurdish activists over the past few years.
Secular Turks also indicate that the AK Party’s increasing restrictions on alcohol and changes to the education system are moving Turkey in an Islamist direction. Erdogan has also established close relations to Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries.
Critics of Monday’s crackdown on the opposition rally suggest that it only further questions regarding Erdogan and his government’s commitment to democracy and suggests an increasingly autocratic mindset, that could endanger Turkey's European Union bid.