PM makes last call to protesters amidst referendum prospects

PM makes last call to protesters amidst referendum prospects

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the mayors from his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, on June 13, 2013. (Photo: AP)

June 13, 2013, Thursday/ 16:39:00/ TODAY'S ZAMAN

One day after his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government raised the prospects of holding a referendum or plebiscite in a bid to resolve the two-week-long Gezi Park conundrum, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued his last call to the protestors on Thursday, saying that they will be removed from the park within 24 hours.

Erdoğan said he asked for the park to be cleared of “troublemakers” within 24 hours. “We will clean the square,” he said.

 "Our patience is at an end. I am making my warning for the last time. I say to the mothers and fathers please take your children in hand and bring them out... We cannot wait any more because Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces but to the people," Erdoğan told an AK Party meeting in Ankara.

The prime minister's comments came a day after the government proposed holding a referendum over a development plan for Gezi Park in central İstanbul square of Taksim that has fanned the protests. Police have at times fired water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters; five people have died and over 5,000 have been injured.

On Wednesday, AK Party Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik announced that a referendum may be held for Gezi Park, where activists and environmentalists have been camping to protest against government's plan to build a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks, to decide whether to build barracks or leave the park as it is, following a meeting between Prime Minister Erdoğan and representatives from the protest to discuss their demands.

Interior Minister Muammer Güler, Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik, Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar and Hüseyin Çelik accompanied Erdoğan at the meeting.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Çelik said the referendum proposal only includes Gezi Park, not the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM).

“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?'"

He said the ongoing sit-in at Gezi Park would not be allowed to continue "until doomsday" -- a sign that government's 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.

Çelik appeared confident that Erdoğan would be vindicated at the ballot box: "We cannot predict the decision of the people, but we believe that our people will side with our party's position."

Elaborating on Çelik's remarks on Thursday, Erdoğan said a plebiscite not a referendum could be held on the fate of Gezi Park because referendums are held on constitutional amendments but plebiscites are held locally.

President Abdullah Gül who was in the Black Sea province of Artvin on Thursday also shared his comments about the referendum issue on Gezi Park and said: “A referendum is one of the tools that democratic societies resort to; it could also be taken. The path of judiciary is binding for us. The path of judiciary is a path which makes exact rulings upon objections. The fact that the issue has gained such a dimension is pleasing.”

Protesters also expressed doubts about the offer, however, and continued to converge on Gezi Park, the epicenter of the anti-government protests that began in İstanbul in late May and spread across the country.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, Interior Minister Güler said the referendum on Gezi Park could be held either in Beyoğlu or across İstanbul. Güler also said the demonstrations in Gezi Park need to be ended because people have become unable to use the park.

“It cannot go on like this, the demonstrations need to be ended,” he said.

Güler also said there are efforts to create the impression that police have been hurting people. “Some [people] tried to set the tents there on fire to cause deaths over from they would stoke chaos. We know this, citizens should also know this,” he said.

In the meantime, Greenpeace announced on Thursday that a plebiscite suggested by the government on the development project in İstanbul's Taksim quarter will be a positive step if it brings “a radical reform.”

“The plebiscite shouldn't be restricted to Gezi Park. Similar action should be taken for other environmental issues as well,” Greenpeace added.

The protests erupted on May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to the development project. They then spread to dozens of cities, rallying tens of thousands of people each night.

In a skirmish late on Wednesday in Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannons to break up some 2,500 protesters who set up makeshift barricades on a road leading to government offices.

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