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 İstanbul that triggered demonstrations that have become the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan'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 İstanbul 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 Erdoğan, 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.
Interior Minister Muammer Güler, Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik, Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar and Çelik accompanied Erdoğan in the meeting, which began at 4:00 p.m.
Those representing the protesters who took part in the meeting were actor Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, academics Betül Tanbay and Hale Çıracı, artist Kutluğ Ataman, student Nil Eyüboğlu, freelance journalist Rumeysa Kiger, architect Selva Gürdoğan, social media specialist Zehra Öney, publisher Zülfikar Kürüm, academic İpek Akpınar and Justice and Development Party (AK Party) member Bülent Peker.
A statement from Taksim Solidarity, an organization founded with the support of over 70 associations and in affiliation with the Taksim Platform as a strong and growing opposition to the controversial projects in Taksim, said on Wednesday that no representative from the group was invited to the meeting with the prime minister. The group also said that as long as “police violence” continues around Gezi Park, such meetings will not bear any fruit.
After the meeting, Hüseyin Çelik, the deputy chairman of the ruling AK Party, announced the government would consider holding a referendum on the development project. But he said any vote would exclude the planned demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) that the protesters also oppose, insisting it is in an earthquake-prone area and must come down.
In a more defiant note, he said the ongoing sit-in in Gezi Park would not be allowed to continue "until doomsday" -- a sign that authorities' patience is running out. But Çelik also quoted Erdoğan as saying that police would be investigated, and any found to have used excessive force against protesters would be punished.
Erdoğan, who has claimed the protests were orchestrated by extremists and "terrorists," has become the centerpiece of the protesters' ire. So a referendum would be a political gamble that the government can mobilize its supporters, win the vote and the demonstrators would go home.
"The most concrete result of the meeting was this: we can take this issue to the people of İstanbul in a referendum. We can ask the people of İstanbul if they want it (the barracks)," Çelik said. "We will ask them: 'Do you accept what's going on, do you want it or not?'"
Prior to the meeting, the prime minister convened the Central Executive Board (MYK) of his party to discuss the protests.
Speaking at his party's parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, Erdoğan said his government's determination to pursue the Gezi Park [plans] will continue.
“Gezi Park is not an area of occupation,” Erdoğan said in reference to the demonstrators.
He also said the protesters were being used by some circles under the guise of protecting Gezi Park.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the events in İstanbul "disturbing and concerning," while stopping short of criticizing Erdoğan's response. A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany's government was watching developments "with great preoccupation," and urged "de-escalation."
Over the two weeks, four people have died in the protests, including a police officer, and more than 5,000 people have been injured or sought treatment for tear gas.
The protests took a new flavor earlier Wednesday as thousands of black-robed lawyers stormed out of their courthouses to deride allegedly rough treatment of their colleagues detained by police a day earlier. Sema Aksoy, the deputy head of the Ankara lawyer's association, said the lawyers were handcuffed and pulled over the ground. She called the police action an affront to Turkey's judicial system.
"Lawyers can't be dragged on the ground!" the demonstrating lawyers shouted in rhythm as they marched out of an Istanbul courthouse. Riot police stood off to the side, shields at the ready.
A spokesman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said police had detained two of its reporters covering the protests in Istanbul. Sasa Petricic and Derek Stoffel were in "good condition," CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson said. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called the Turkish ambassador to express his concerns.