Erdogan's choice

An assault by riot police has transformed what began as a demonstration by environmental activists against redevelopment of a park in central Istanbul into a burst of popular anger at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Breathless reporting from the scene has cast the clashes as the possible beginnings of a broader political movement.

But this is no Turkish spring. Protesters are not challenging the political legitimacy of Erdogan's thrice-elected Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government. Nor is there an economic trigger for popular anger; Turkey's population is a bit smaller than Egypt's, but its economy is more than four times larger. There is no popular opposition party with enough support to assume power. Instead, demonstrators are angry at Erdogan's often authoritarian, uncompromising style of governing. The risk of a destabilizing political crisis is slim.

But that risk will rise if Erdogan tries to bulldoze his way through this episode. Protesters are demanding an investigation of charges of police brutality and an explicit commitment from Erdogan to protect Taksim Square park from redevelopment and the adjacent Ataturk Cultural Center. So far, Erdogan has responded with mixed messages. He offered an oblique apology for the excessive use of force against demonstrators, though clashes significantly escalated in Taksim this week, but he also insisted that redevelopment of Taksim Square will go forward.

This approach has not eased tensions. Turkey's political system is not at risk, but the political future of the man at the center of Turkish politics for the past decade remains in the balance. What he says and does next will be critical. There are three possible scenarios.

First, Erdogan may adopt a more conciliatory tone and offer the demonstrators some concessions. This will not be immediate. He needs to ensure his own constituency is satisfied first before he can moderate his rhetoric. If he softens, the confrontations in the street will probably subside. The protests have already damaged Erdogan's domestic and international reputation, but he has more than a year to recover before he faces voters. The AKP's own term limits prevent another term as prime minister, so to extend his career, Erdogan will run for president in August 2014. If these protests subside, he will still be the favorite in a weak field. Erdogan understands this. He is a pugnacious leader, but he's also a pragmatist. The latter quality is the more likely to carry the day.

Yet, even in this scenario, demonstrations have given a clear voice to those who oppose his sometimes heavy-handed style, leaving him a damaged figure with fewer options than he had two weeks ago. Erdogan's plans to make the presidency a more powerful position before the election will have to be much more carefully considered, and he is now less likely to push forward controversial laws or decisions that might trigger a sharply negative public reaction.

If, on the other hand, Erdogan refuses to moderate his words and actions, or if he does not follow constructive rhetoric with immediate action, more political and economic turmoil becomes likely. Under this second scenario, Erdogan's overconfidence and unwillingness to back down may give the protests new life. After more than a week of demonstrations, protesters don't want to abandon the streets without winning some substantive concessions. If Erdogan orders an escalation, the face-off could continue for weeks, and violence could take on a life of its own.

Following events could then unfold in one of two ways:

Members of the ruling party may be forced to choose sides, and some might attempt to ease tensions by distancing themselves from their leader. Although half the public voted for the ruling party in the 2011 elections, some of its support is soft. Those who supported it because it sustained Turkey's political stability and improved the business environment, rather than for political-ideological motives, could begin searching for an acceptable alternative. Adding to the drama, Turkey's mainstream media has amped up its coverage of the clashes, and some outlets are now openly siding with the protesters. If party loyalists begin to believe that Erdogan's actions are hurting their image, they may trigger an internal debate over whether a replacement might turn things around.

Alternatively, Erdogan may get away with crushing the protests with an aggressive security crackdown, assert control over his party, and blunt any challenge within the party with an even more authoritarian style. Erdogan could still win the upcoming election by a significantly slimmer margin, but this approach could jeopardize his entire political career, his international reputation, and his legacy.

Whatever happens, Erdogan has options, and it is the choices he makes next that will define his future -- and perhaps alter Turkey's course.

Naz Masraff is Turkey analyst in Eurasia Group's Europe practice.