ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew back to a Turkey rocked by days of anti-government unrest on Friday and declared before a sea of flag-waving supporters at Istanbul airport: “These protests must end immediately.”
“No power but Allah can stop Turkey’s rise,” he told thousands who gathered in the early hours to greet him in the first pro-Erdogan rally since demonstrations began a week ago.
At Istanbul’s Taksim Square, centre of the protests now occupied by thousands around the clock, some chanted “Tayyip resign” as they watched a broadcast of the address. In the capital Ankara, the Kugulu Park echoed to anti-government slogans, while protesters danced or sang the national anthem.
Speaking from an open-top bus at the airport, his wife at his side, Erdogan acknowledged police might have used excessive force in crushing a small demonstration against a building project last Friday – the action that triggered nationwide protests against his 10-year-old rule.
“However, no-one has the right to attack us through this. May Allah preserve our fraternity and unity. We will have nothing to do with fighting and vandalism…The secret to our success is not tension and polarization.”
“The police are doing their duty. These protests, which have turned into vandalism and utter lawlessness must end immediately,” Erdogan told the crowd.
He gave no indication of any immediate plans to remove the makeshift protest camps that have appeared on Taksim Square and a park in the capital, Ankara. But the gatherings mark a clear challenge to his declarations.
Western governments including the United States, which sees Turkey as a key NATO ally in the Middle East, bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, have expressed concern about heavy-handed police action. Washington in particular has projected Turkey under Erdogan as an example of a muslim democracy that could be emulated by other countries in the region, such as Egypt.
WARNING TO FINANCE
Erdogan set his sights also on financial institutions and markets, which have fallen on the troubles.
“We have come to this level despite the interest rate lobby,” he said. “The interest rate lobby thinks they can threaten us by entering into speculations in the stock exchange. They should know we will not let them abuse the nation’s wealth.”
Supporters of Erdogan, who enjoys strong support in Turkey’s conservative heartland, chanted “Don’t Test our Patience” and “Istanbul is Here” and waved the Turkish flag – a white crescent moon and star on a red background – and the banner of the AKP, the image of a light bulb.
Erdogan swept to power in 2002 shortly after founding his AKP party from conservative islamists, nationalists and centre-right elements. In a decade he has transformed the economy, tripling per capita income, introduced some rights reforms and reining in an army that had toppled four governments in 40 years.
But critics say more recently he has become increasingly authoritarian and pursued by stealth an islamist agenda challenging nine decades of state secularism – something he denies. They accuse him of arrogance born of three election victories, the last built on a 50 per cent vote.
Erdogan has no clear rivals inside the AKP or outside where the opposition, both on the streets and in parliament, is fragmented. But in his party there are those who counsel more measured public comments than those ventured by Erdogan, who has tended to apply blanket condemnation to the protesters, branding them looters or associating them with terrorists.
Deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc apologized for the police violence this week, after Erdogan had left for north Africa.
Erdogan was speaking to his own supporters and his words might be seen in that context, but advisers must also have been aware that they would be heard throughout the country.
“Some say the prime minister is the prime minister of 50 per cent,” Erdogan said. “We have always said that we are servant of the 76 million.”
A protest that began with environmentalists resisting a plan to develop Taksim Square has ballooned to take in wide sectors of the population. Among the demonstrators are nationalists, leftists, students, unionists and middle class professionals who accuse Erdogan of adopting an authoritarian style of government.
The government says militant leftists associated with terrorist attacks have also been involved in skirmishing with police that has spread to dozens of cities.
Six newspapers carried the same headline backing Erdogan on Friday: “We’ll lay down our lives for democratic demands” – a comment he made to reporters in Tunisia.
The Leftist Sol’s headline read: “The Deaf Sultan,” accusing Erdogan of refusing to understand protesters’ demands.
Whistle-blower and anti-army Taraf said “Erdogan is burning Turkey,” while the liberal Vatan said “He doesn’t give up.”
At Taksim, the mood remained defiant.
“It’s all up to Erdogan and what he says right now. He will decide the fate of this resistance, whether it will calm (down) or escalate,” said Mehmet Polat, 42, a ship captain who has not worked all week, coming instead toprotest at Taksim.
“These people have been here for days. He has to understand.”
Police backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters have clashed with groups of protesters night after night, leaving three dead and some 4,000 injured, while thousands of Erdogan’s opponents have massed peacefully in Taksim, surrounded by barricades of torn-up paving stones and street signs.
Erdogan may find himself pulled by two forces, one counseling caution and the other advising firm action to prevent a further spread of protests. By character he is the man of firm action, one of the character traits that has help win him three elections in a row.
“Erdogan cannot backtrack now. It would mean defeat,” said Ali Aydin, 38, a car dealer in the Tophane neighbourhood of Istanbul, a conservative bastion in the mostly Bohemian district around Taksim Square. “Weakness would destroy the party.”
(Additional reporting by Jon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Philip Barbara)
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