"Where they gather 100,000, I can bring together 1 million."
That was not only one of the highlights of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initial reaction to the massive protest against his government that shook Turkey in the past weekend. It was also the gist of his problem.
Erdogan, the most popular premier Turkey has seen in the past half-century, believes in what political scientists would call a "majoritarian democracy." In other words, he believes that once he gets the majority of the votes -- which he has done successfully throughout the past decade -- he has the right to make every single political decision in the country. He disregards all opposing views, and, furthermore, employs an overbearing tone to shout them down.
The recent dispute over Istanbul's Taksim Square, which triggered the demonstrations, was a perfect example. Erdogan wants to rebuild the square according to his own vision, so the Istanbul municipality, which is controlled by his political party, initiated a reconstruction project. One of the details is the replacement of Gezi Park, a small green area, with a reconstructed Ottoman military barracks, which, as Erdogan said in passing, can also serve as a shopping mall.
But many Taksim residents want to keep their park as it is, and some founded a civil society initiative asking to be heard. But the prime minister never wanted to listen. Instead, when they launched the "Occupy Taksim" campaign last week, a movement with a similar spirit to the "Occupy" movements in Western countries, Erdogan's government responded in a way one should not see in any democracy -- with a police attack on peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and water canons.
As the news of the crackdown spread quickly on Twitter, thousands gathered in Taksim to help the initially small group of demonstrators. Continuing police brutality only added more fuel to the fire, and in a couple of hours the crowd had already grown into tens of thousands. They were soon joined by masses protesting all across the country. One of the demonstrators, appearing on Al Jazeera, summed up the basic demand: "We just want Erdogan to listen to us."
But listening is not Erdogan's strong suit. Instead, he branded the protesters as "a bunch of looters" guided by extremist elements, and denounced Twitter as "a menace to society" that was spreading lies about what was happening in Turkey. (There were indeed some false tweets about imaginary police atrocities that provoked the crowd, but they were also soon proved false on Twitter as well.)