By Birsen Altayli and Ayla Jean Yackley, ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused anti-government protesters on Monday of walking “arm-in-arm with terrorism”, remarks that could further inflame public anger after three days of some of the most violent riots in decades.
Hundreds of police and protesters have been injured since Friday, when a demonstration to halt construction in a park in an Istanbul square grew into mass protests against a heavy-handed crackdown and what opponents call Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Protests have been held in dozens of cities.
The demonstrations showed no sign of abating on Monday with protesters gathering again in Taksim Square. Barricades of rubble hindered traffic alongside the Bosphorus waterway and blocked entry into the area. Leftist groups hung out red and black flags and banners calling on Erdogan to resign and declaring: “Whatever happens, there is no going back.”
In Ankara, protesters threw up a barricade in the Kizilay government quarter and lit a fire in the road as a helicopter circled overhead. Police charged demonstrators, mostly teenagers, and scattered them using tear gas and water cannon.
Erdogan has dismissed the protests as the work of secularist enemies never reconciled to the mandate of his AK party, which has roots in Islamist parties banned in the past but which also embraces center-right and nationalist elements. The party has won three straight elections and overseen an economic boom, increasing Turkey’s influence in the region.
“This is a protest organized by extremist elements,” Erdogan said at a news conference before departing on a trip to North Africa. “We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism.”
“Many things have happened in this country, they’ve hanged, they’ve poisoned, but we will walk towards the future with determination and through holding onto our values,” he added, an allusion to Turkey’s murky past of military coups.
Turkey’s leftist Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), which represents 240,000 members, said it would hold a “warning strike” on June 4-5 to protest over the crackdown on what had begun as peaceful protests.
The unrest delivered a blow to Turkish financial markets that have thrived under Erdogan. Shares fell more than 10 percent and the lira dropped to 16-month lows.
Since taking office in 2002, Erdogan has dramatically cut back the power of the army, which ousted four governments in the second half of the 20th century and which hanged and jailed many, including a prime minister. In 1997 Turkey’s first Islamist government was eased from office by the military.
Hundreds of officers, including top generals, as well as journalists and intellectuals have been jailed over an alleged coup plot against Erdogan. The wind of change has swept also through the judiciary. Where Erdogan was jailed in the late 1990s for promoting Islamism by reciting a poem, a musician was recently jailed for blasphemy after mocking religion in a tweet.
Erdogan said the protesters had no support in the population as a whole and dismissed any comparison with the ‘Arab Spring’ that swept nearby Arab states, toppling rulers long ensconced in power with the help of repressive security services.
His own tenure in office, with its economic and political reforms, was itself the “Turkish Spring”, he suggested.
“Those in foreign media who talk about a Turkish Spring, we are already going through Turkish Spring, we have been living in it, and those who want to turn it into winter will not succeed.”
He gave no indication he was preparing any concessions to protesters who accuse him of fostering a hidden Islamist agenda in a country with a secularist constitution.
Some object to new restrictions on alcohol sales and other steps seen as religiously motivated. Others complain of the costs of Erdogan’s support of rebels in neighboring Syria’s civil war. Still others bear economic grievances, viewing the disputed development project in Taksim Square as emblematic of wild greed among those who have benefited from Turkey’s boom.
Walls around Taksim were plastered with cartoon posters of an image borrowed from a photograph, broadly disseminated on twitter, of a policeman spraying tear gas at a young woman in a red summer dress, her long hair swept upwards by the draught of the spraygun.
“The more they spray, the bigger we get,” read the caption.
Western governments have promoted Erdogan’s administration as a democratic Islamist model that could be copied elsewhere in the Middle East after the fall of authoritarian leaders. They have expressed concerns about human rights standards discreetly, but last weekend’s events prompted the United States and the European Union to openly criticize police action.
Erdogan appeared to reject accusations of heavy handedness.
“We … are behaving in a very restrained way,” he said.
“Be calm, relax,” he advised the public. “All this will be overcome.”
“FUEL TO THE FIRE”
The protests had appeared to ease off on Saturday night, but were re-ignited by defiant comments by Erdogan on Sunday afternoon describing the protesters as “a few looters” driven on by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“Rather than try to calm the situation … some of Mr Erdogan’s public statements about the protesters have added fuel to the fire,” Robert O’Daly, Turkey Analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said. “Mr Erdogan appears to have underestimated the mood in the country.”
There were signs some in the AK party did not back Erdogan’s view that the troubles were promoted by the hardline secularist CHP.
“The people on the street across Turkey are not exclusively from the CHP, but from all ideologies and all parties,” senior CHP member Mehmet Akif Hamzacebi told Reuters. “What Erdogan has to do is not to blame CHP but draw the necessary lessons from what happened.”
With strong support, especially in the conservative religious heartland of Anatolia, Erdogan seems safe for now.
He said plans would go ahead to re-make Taksim Square, long a rallying point for demonstrations, including construction of a new mosque and the rebuilding of a replica Ottoman-era barracks.
Protests have involved a broad spectrum in dozens of cities, from students to professionals, trade unionists, Kurdish activists and hardline secularists who see Erdogan seeking to overthrow the secularist state set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan remains the most popular politician, and pointed to his electoral mandate, won since 2002 on the virtual ruin of traditional parties mired in corruption and mismanagement.
“The fact the AK Party has increased its votes at three elections in a row and has successfully won two referendums, shows how the people of this nation have embraced the AK Party,” he said.
(Writing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Nick Tattersall, Peter Graff and Giles Elgood)