Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday braced for a showdown with angry protesters after loyalists rallied in his support, risking a potential escalation of a week of deadly unrest.
Greeted by thousands of cheering supporters as he landed back in Istanbul in the early hours from an overseas trip, the prime minister defied the protesters rallying against him and his conservative reforms in the fiercest challenge yet to his decade-long rule.
“I call for an immediate end to the demonstrations, which have lost their democratic credentials and turned into vandalism,” Erdogan said in a speech at Istanbul’s main airport.
He insisted he was the “servant” of all the people, but hinted that he would act against further defiance.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to anybody disturbing peace in the country and trying to hijack democracy,” he said.
The stakes rose yesterday for Turkey’s international image as Erdogan’s office said he was due to meet with EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule — the EU pointman for relations with countries such as Turkey that aspire to join the bloc.
The US and other Western powers have expressed concern about the police’s use of force.
Unrest broke out a week ago when police violently dispersed demonstrators opposed to the redevelopment of an Istanbul park. It then spread across the country, with riot cops firing tear gas and water cannon at stone-throwing protesters calling for Erdogan’s resignation.
In his homecoming speech he hinted darkly at further action.
“They ask us to withdraw the police. And then what? This is not a no man’s land,” he said.
Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, condemned Erdogan’s speech, saying his uncompromising stance was pushing the country towards “a dangerous polarization.”
“A prime minister should use more conciliatory language,” the leader of the Republican People’s Party told reporters in the western city of Izmir.
In the city of Eskisehir, a 17-year-old protester suffered a grave head injury after being attacked by stick-wielding pro-Erdogan supporters overnight, local television said.