Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rallied supporters yesterday after anti-government protesters burned tires and hurled fireworks at riot police firing back tear gas in unrelenting civil unrest.
The fresh clashes raised pressure on Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted conservative government after he ordered an end to the protests, which have thrown up the fiercest challenge to his decade of rule.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of demonstrators poured onto the streets in Istanbul, cradle of the 10 days of unrest, as well as in the capital, Ankara, and the major western city of Izmir.
The protests were mostly peaceful, but local media said numerous people were injured in Ankara when police dispersed a crowd of about 10,000, sending them scrambling and tripping over each other with jets of water and gas.
Fresh clashes also erupted in Istanbul’s western Gazi neighbourhood — a working-class district largely peopled by Alevis, a Muslim minority opposed to Erdogan — where rioters hurled incendiary devices and taunted police.
Turkey’s leader, who has reacted with defiance to the unrest, yesterday urged supporters to respond to the protesters by voting for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at next year’s local elections.
“There are just seven months left until the local elections. I want you to teach them a first lesson through democratic means at the ballot box,” Erdogan said at the airport of the southern city of Adana, where he was greeted by thousands of loyalists in a sea of red Turkish flags.
The government on Saturday insisted the protests were “under control,” but within hours some of the largest crowds yet packed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where the unrest erupted on May 31 with a police crackdown on a campaign to save the adjacent Gezi Park from demolition.
The trouble spiraled into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his party, seen as increasingly authoritarian. Thousands have been injured and three people have died in the unrest so far, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
The atmosphere was festive over Saturday night in Taksim, which has seen no police presence since officers pulled out on Saturday last week, with crowds of local soccer supporters setting off red flares as the masses danced and shouted deep into the night.
“We will not do what a few looters have done. They burn, they destroy,” Erdogan said yesterday, again dismissing the demonstrators as “anarchists” and “terrorists.”
“They are vile enough to insult a prime minister of this country,” he told the cheering crowd in Adana.
Adana too saw protesters doused with tear gas overnight. It is also where a policeman died on Wednesday after injuring himself in a fall.
In fresh bid to calm the turmoil, the man who ordered the initial police crackdown, Istanbul Governor 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,” he said.
Resting wearily on a blanket on Taksim Square with friends after a night of defiant chanting and dancing, architect Buse Albay, 25, said she would keep protesting against the prime minister for “as long as it takes until he goes away.”
Packing up his tent nearby, Aykut Kaya, a 23-year-old information-technology student, added: “It was amazing, so beautiful to see everyone together” in the overnight rally.