Turkish gov’t open to referendum to end protests
ISTANBUL – Turkey’s government on Wednesday offered a first concrete gesture aimed at ending nearly two weeks of street protests, proposing a referendum on a development project in Istanbul that triggered demonstrations that have become the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 10-year tenure.
Protesters expressed doubts about the offer, however, and continued to converge in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park, epicenter of the anti-government protests that began in Istanbul 13 days ago and spread across the country. At times, police have broken up demonstrations using tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
The protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to a development project that would replace Gezi Park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. They then spread to dozens of cities, rallying tens of thousands of people each night.
In a skirmish late Wednesday in Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up some 2,500 protesters who set up makeshift barricades on a road leading to government offices.
The referendum proposal came after Erdogan, who had been defiant and uncompromising in recent days, met with a group of 11 activists, including academics, students and artists, in Ankara. However, groups involved in the protests in Taksim and the park boycotted the meeting, saying they weren’t invited and the attendees didn’t represent them.
Greenpeace said it didn’t participate because of an “environment of violence” in the country, while Taksim Solidarity, which has been coordinating much of the occupation of Gezi Park, said it had not been invited. The group reiterated its demands that Gezi remain a public park, that abusive senior officials be fired, and all detained protesters be released – not issues the referendum would address.