Thousands gather in Istanbul’s Taksim Square; Erdogan says protesters not respecting Islam
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told thousands of supporters in the Black Sea city of Samsun on Saturday that weeks of often violent protests against his government had played into the hands of Turkey's enemies.
As he finished speaking, around 10,000 protesters had gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, many of them to attend a planned laying down of carnations in memory of the four people who had been killed in the unrest.
Turkish riot police fired water cannon to clear the protesters from the square, as the crowd chanted “this is just the start; the struggle will continue”.
The crowd quickly scattered, and water cannon trucks parked at several entry points to Taksim to prevent people from regrouping.
People living around the square banged pots and pans, a sign of solidarity with protesters throughout more than three weeks of unrest in Istanbul and other cities across Turkey. Demonstrators shouted “Police, don’t betray your people!”.
In Samsun, a crowd of some 15,000 of Erdogan’s AK Party faithful cheered and waved Turkish flags as he called on the public to give their answer to protests at the ballot box when Turkey holds municipal elections next March.
The rally in the party stronghold was the fourth in a series of mass meetings which Erdogan has called since demonstrations began in Istanbul at the start of June in an unprecedented challenge on the streets to his rule.
The blunt-talking 59-year-old said opponents both within Turkey and abroad had orchestrated the demonstrations, saying an “interest rate lobby” of speculators in financial markets had benefited from the unrest.
"Who won from these three weeks of protests? The interest rate lobby, Turkey’s enemies," Erdogan said from a stage emblazoned with his portrait and a slogan calling for his supporters to "thwart the big game" played out against Turkey.
"Who lost from these protests? Turkey’s economy, even if to a small extent, tourism lost. They overshadowed and stained Turkey’s image and international power," he said.
In a speech appealing to his conservative grassroots support, Erdogan made fresh accusations that those involved in the protests in Turkey’s main western cities were disrespectful towards Islam, the religion of the vast majority of Turkey.
"Let them go into mosques in their shoes, let them drink alcohol in our mosques, let them raise their hand to our headscarved girls. One prayer from our people is enough to frustrate their plans," Erdogan said, before tossing red carnations to the crowd after his speech.
Turkish society polarized?
The protests have underlined divisions in Turkish society between religious conservatives who form the bedrock of Erdogan’s support, and more liberal Turks who have swelled the ranks of peaceful demonstrators.
Erdogan, who won his third consecutive election in 2011 with 50 percent support, has been riled by the open show of dissent, and sees himself as a champion of democratic reform.
During his 10-year rule, which has seen him unchallenged on the political stage, he has enacted reforms that include curbing powers of an army that toppled four governments in four decades and pursuing an end to 30 years of Kurdish rebellion.
But he brooks little dissent. Hundreds of military officers have been jailed on charges of plotting a coup against Erdogan.
A court near Istanbul said on Friday it will announce on August 5 its verdict on nearly 300 defendants, including academics, journalists and politicians, accused of separate plots to overthrow the government.
But among the large section of Turkey’s 76 million people who do not back him, Erdogan is viewed as increasingly authoritarian and too quick to meddle in their private lives.
Recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol have fueled their suspicions that he has a creeping Islamist agenda.
That resentment spilled into open protest when police cracked down on a group of environmentalists opposed to his plans to develop a central Istanbul park in late May, spreading to other cities and turning violent night after night.
Sporadic clashes have continued in some cities this week, but Istanbul has been calm as many people adopted a silent show of defiance inspired by the so-called “Standing Man” protester.
On Sunday, Erdogan will address a rally in the eastern city of Erzurum, also an AK Party stronghold.