Clashes rock Turkish capital as protesters defy Erdogan

5 min

Turkish riot police use tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of demonstrators in the capital, Ankara, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urges supporters to "teach protesters a lesson" in local elections next year.


Police in Ankara fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse thousands of people protesting near government buildings on Saturday, as Turkey’s biggest wave of anti-government protests in decades entered its second week with no signs of waning.

Turkey's state-run agency said pro- and anti-government protesters also clashed, for the second time since demonstrations began, according to the AP. The Anadolu Agency said a pro-government group hurled stones at a march by anti-government demonstrators in the city of Adana late Saturday. The agency said police evacuated women and children, but the two groups continued to clash with stones and batons

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s governing party on Saturday ruled out early elections as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators defied his call for an immediate end to protests. He convened the leadership of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to discuss the protests Saturday afternoon.

Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the party founded by Erdogan just over a decade ago, said local and presidential elections would be held next year as planned, and a general election in 2015, reported Reuters.

“The government is running like clockwork. There is nothing that necessitates early elections,” he told reporters after a meeting of the party’s executive committee in Istanbul.

“The world is dealing with an economic crisis and things are going well in Turkey. Elections are not held because people are marching on the streets.”

On Sunday, Erdogan urged his supporters to "teach [the protesters] a lesson" when local elections are held next year.

The protests, sparked by outrage over a violent police action to oust an environmental protest in Isanbul’s Taksim Square on May 31, and which have spread to dozens of cities across Turkey, are the first serious challenge to Erdogan’s leadership.

Three people have died – two protesters and a policeman – and thousands have been injured so far.

A general condemnation of Erdogan

What began as a campaign against government plans to build over Istanbul's Gezi Park spiralled into an unprecedented display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted government, leading to the worst riots in decades.

Huseyin Celik also accused the main opposition party of trying to topple Erdogan through illegitimate means, "having failed seven times to beat (the AKP) in the ballot boxes."

The head of Turkey’s nationalist party, Devlet Bahceli, had called for early elections for Erdogan to reaffirm his mandate.

"The prime minister’s stance and the tumult have deepened the crisis," Bahceli told reporters. "The prime minister’s time is up, we believe he has to renew his mandate."

The protests have attracted a broad array of people angered by what they say are Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways and his intervention in private lives. They point to attempts to curtail the selling and promotion of alcohol, his comments on how women should dress and statements that each woman should have at least three children.

A devout Muslim who says he is committed to upholding Turkey’s secular tradition, Erdogan vehemently rejects charges of autocracy and points out that he enjoyed 50 percent support in the last elections in 2011.

The protests began as a sit-in at Taksim’s Gezi Park to prevent a redevelopment project that would replace the park with replica Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall.

The mall idea has since been scrapped, with Erdogan recently saying an opera house, theater and possibly a museum would be built instead.

On Saturday, thousands of fans from Istanbul’s rival football teams, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, set aside their usual rivalry to march together and join protesters in Taksim Square.

They set off dozens of flares, which streaked into the night sky above the packed square.

A group of Besiktas fans also marched in Ankara. "We are against injustice," Kerim Yilmaz, 26, who heads a fans group in Ankara, told The Associated Press.

"Our friends’ and all of our freedoms are being limited. We do not want our green areas to be used for shopping malls. We all want to live freely. We are here to defend our freedom."

Erdogan's fight to end the protest

Erdogan said Friday that the protests must end immediately. However, they show no signs of abating.

Over the past week, protesters – mainly young, secular and middle-class, but also including some religious Muslims who were formerly Erdogan supporters – have set up camp in Gezi Park. They have vowed to remain there until the development project for the area is cancelled.

Asked about the barricades that protesters have set up on streets around Taksim, and about the protesters’ encampment in the park, AKP deputy chaiman Huseyin Celik said that "the process is under government control, there is no need for concern."

"Of course we would not be disturbed by people making their wishes, their grievances, their objections known through democratic means," he said. "But if the protests turn into something else and reach the level of terror, then they become unjust even if demands are just," he added.

Erdogan has given no indication of plans to clear out Taksim, around which protesters have built dozens of barricades made of ripped up paving stones, street signs, vandalised vehicles and corrugated iron, clogging part of the city centre.

The prime minister has previously said that "terrorists" are involved in the protests, in an apparent reference to the participation of some left-wing groups sympathizing with an outlawed, violent far-left organization. Meanwhile, Celik reiterated a claim made by Erdogan that the unrest has been fuelled by the "interest rate lobby,'' implying that a banking conspiracy was at work to destabilize the country's economy.

On Saturday, Istanbul’s mayor confirmed that the government would go ahead with plans to reconstruct the Ottoman barracks in Taksim but had abandoned plans to build a shopping mall, luxury hotel or residences. He said all projects would progress in consultation with civil society groups.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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