Protesters and riot police clashed for a second day in Istanbul yesterday amid raging anti-government demonstrations that represent one of the biggest challenges Turkey’s Islamist-rooted leadership has faced since it assumed power in 2002.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained defiant in the face of the unrest, which has exposed growing discontent with what critics say is his government’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.
In yesterday’s clashes, police fired tear gas at protesters gathering in Taksim Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations that have left dozens of people injured and earned Turkey a rare rebuke from ally the US. Protesters in turn hurled rocks and bottles at the police.
“We have become one fist,” 33-year-old Ataman Bet said as he swept the shattered glass and burnt plastic in front of his small coffee shop near Taksim.
“This has been everybody — leftist, rightist, even supporters of Erdogan. People are angry, I am so proud of them” he said, calling the damages to his shop a “necessary sacrifice.”
Erdogan has refused to bend to the protesters, vowing to go through with the plan that sparked the unrest: razing a park near Taksim and rebuilding an Ottoman-era military barracks to be used as a shopping mall in its place.
“I call on the protesters to stop their demonstrations immediately,” Erdogan said. “Police were there yesterday, they’ll be on duty today and also tomorrow because Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild.”
“We will rebuild the barracks,” Erdogan said, though he added it was not clear whether the new site would function as a shopping mall.
Thousands of people have poured out into the streets in support of the demonstrators in other Turkish cities, including in the capital, Ankara, the western cities of Izmir and Mugla, and Antalya in the south.
Police yesterday blocked a group of demonstrators from marching to parliament and the prime minister’s office in Ankara.
Local media reported that the Istanbul police were running short of tear gas supplies, with walkie-talkie announcements warning the units to use the gas “economically.”
The unrest erupted into anti-government demonstrations after police on Friday moved into Taksim to break up a protest against the razing of the park, the last patch of greenery in the highly commercialized area.
Clashes raged during Friday night as thousands of people marched through the city, some banging pots and pans as others shouted support from the windows.
Still others held up cans of beer in defiance of a recent law — supported by the ruling Justice and Development Party — which prohibits the sale of alcohol during nighttime and is seen by critics as the latest sign of creeping conservatism.
“They want to turn this country into an Islamist state, they want to impose their vision all the while pretending to respect democracy,” one protester said.