Turkey’s defiant Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday told supporters his patience “has a limit” as he went on the offensive against mass protests to his Islamic-rooted government’s decade-long rule.
As thousands of protesters massed in Istanbul, the capital Ankara and the western city of Izmir, in unrest now in its 10th day, Erdogan staged his own rallies, hitting three cities in one day to fire up loyalists of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“We remained patient, we are still patient but there’s a limit to our patience,” Erdogan told thousands of cheering AKP supporters as he landed at Ankara's airport late on Sunday.
“Nobody should be pessimistic. Nobody should worry. Turkey went through many events in the past and will overcome this too,” he assured them.
His fans relished the show of strength, frequently interrupting the outdoor speech with bursts of applause and chanting: “Turkey is proud of you.”
At the same time, thousands of rival anti-government demonstrators thronged the capital’s Kizilay square, where police used tear gas and jets of water to disperse demonstrators overnight, sending them scrambling and tripping over each other.
The unrest first erupted on May 31 with a tough police crackdown on a campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from demolition. The trouble spiraled into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his party, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
More than 4,000 demonstrators, many of whom are young and middle-class, have been injured and three people have died in the unrest so far, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Erdogan on Sunday maintained his tough line against the protesters, dismissing them as “anarchists” and “terrorists.”
“The youth that curses its prime minister cannot be my youth,” he said earlier in the southern port of Mersin, at a sports center packed with tens of thousands of flag-waving AKP loyalists.
“If you care about democracy, this prime minister is at your disposal,” he added.
In the southern city of Adana, he urged a large crowd to respond to the demonstrations by voting for the AKP in next year’s local polls. “I want you to teach them a first lesson through democratic means at the ballot box.”
Adana also saw violence overnight, with police dousing demonstrators with tear gas. There were also reports of stone-throwing, pro-government rioters joining the fray.
The government insisted Saturday that the protests were “under control,” but hours later some of the largest crowds yet packed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicenter of the demos, with people peacefully singing and dancing through the night.
Taksim has seen no police presence since officers pulled out last weekend.
‘I salute the young people’
In a fresh bid to calm the turmoil, the man who ordered the initial police crackdown, the governor of Istanbul Huseyin Avni Mutlu, apologized on Twitter and said he wished he was with the protesters camping out on Taksim Square.
“I salute the young people of this country who chose to sleep on the square under the stars instead of in their warm beds.”
Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik on Saturday dismissed any talk of calling early elections to resolve the crisis. “You don’t decide on early elections because people are marching on the streets,” he told reporters in Istanbul.
Sitting on a blanket in Taksim Square, architect Buse Albay, 25, said she would keep protesting against the premier for “as long as it takes until he goes away.”
Nearby, Aykut Kaya, a 23-year-old IT student, added: “It was amazing, so beautiful to see everyone together” in the overnight rally. He said he hoped Erdogan was paying attention. “Please see us. We are here... We all need freedom.”
Erdogan has faced international condemnation for his handling of the unrest in Turkey, a NATO member and key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.
The national doctors’ union says the unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.
Erdogan added Sunday that over 600 police officers have been hurt in the clashes.
Critics accuse the assertive leader, in power since 2002, of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing big urban development projects at the expense of local residents.
Opposition to Turkey’s leader is intense, but his AKP party has won three elections in a row, having presided over strong economic growth.
Turkey will hold both local and presidential elections next year. The AKP plans to launch its first campaign rallies in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend. A general election is scheduled for 2015.