Turkish protesters refused to back down Monday after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned they would “pay a price” for their unrelenting demonstrations against his Islamic-rooted government’s decade-long rule.
As riot police doused of thousands of protesters in the capital Ankara with tear gas and jets of water for a second straight night, Erdogan went on the offensive, firing up supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with combative rhetoric in rallies across the country.
“Those who do not respect this nation’s party in power will pay a price,” he told thousands of cheering loyalists in Ankara, just a few kilometers away from the clashes in downtown Kizilay Square, the latest violence in a second week of mass civil unrest.
“We remained patient, we are still patient but there's a limit to our patience,” Erdogan said.
His fans relished the show of strength, frequently interrupting his remarks with bursts of applause and chanting: “Turkey is proud of you.”
Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators stepped up their protests over the weekend, pouring into cities across Turkey, including Istanbul, Ankara and the western city of Izmir.
Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of the protest movement, attracted some of the largest crowds yet, with people dancing and chanting “Erdogan, resign!” into the early hours in a festive atmosphere.
A history of the protest
The unrest first erupted on May 31 with a tough police crackdown on a campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park, which borders Taksim Square, from demolition. The trouble spiraled into nationwide displays of anger against Erdogan and his party, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Nearly 5,000 demonstrators, scores of whom are young and middle-class, have been injured and three people have died in the trouble, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Taksim Square was much quieter on Monday as demonstrators resumed their normal routines, though many vowed they would return.
“We are going to school now but we will come back later,” Etem Yakin, 17, as she crossed the square, where a clean-up operation was in full swing.
She accused the premier of pouring oil on the flames with his confrontational stance. “If he keeps talking like this, we will keep up like this too.”
The square and Gezi Park, both dotted with tents and festooned with banners and flags, have been transformed into a large police-free zone after officers pulled out over a week ago, and the area has seen no fresh clashes since.
On his whistle-stop tour of three cities Sunday, Erdogan urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.
“I want you to teach them a first lesson through democratic means at the ballot box.”
Turkey will see both local and presidential elections in 2014. The AKP plans to launch its first campaign rallies in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend, expected to bring tens of thousands into the streets.
A general election is scheduled for 2015 and officials have ruled out any suggestion of calling early polls because of the crisis.
Like a lion in a corner
Erdogan was to meet with government ministers in Ankara later Monday, with the crisis expected to top the agenda.
“I honestly don’t know where this is going,” said Akif Burak Atlar, secretary of Taksim Solidarity, a group representing the original Gezi Park campaigners.
“It was his speeches and the police brutality that led the protests this far in the first place. He needs to take a step back.”
“He looks worried. He’s like a lion in a corner,” added 25-year-old student Onur Alptekin.
The national doctors’ union says the unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead so far while almost 4,800 people have been injured.
Erdogan said Sunday that over 600 police officers have been hurt.
He 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.
Critics accuse Erdogan, 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 Erdogan is intense, but the AKP has won three elections in a row, having presided over strong economic growth.
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