Turkish PM likens protests to terrorism

Graffiti and slogans scrawled on the window of a bank on Taksim Square. Picture: Getty
Graffiti and slogans scrawled on the window of a bank on Taksim Square. Picture: Getty
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Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has accused anti-government protesters of walking “arm in arm with terrorism”, in remarks that could further inflame public anger after three days of some of the most violent riots in decades.

Hundreds of police and protesters have been injured since Friday, when a demonstration aimed at halting construction in a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square grew into mass protests against a heavy-handed crackdown and what opponents call Mr Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Protests have since been held in dozens of cities.

The demonstrations showed no sign of abating yesterday, with protesters gathering again in the square. Barricades of rubble hindered traffic alongside the Bosphorus waterway and blocked entry into the area. Left-wing groups hung out red and black flags and banners calling on Mr Erdogan to resign and declaring: “Whatever happens, there is no going back.”

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Mr Erdogan again dismissed the street protests as being organised by Turkey’s opposition and extremist groups and angrily rejected comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings. “We already have a spring in Turkey,” he said, alluding to the nation’s free elections. “But there are those who want to turn this spring into winter.

“Be calm, these will all pass. We will not give away anything to those who live arm in arm with terrorism.”

Appearing defensive and angry, he lashed out at reporters who asked whether the government understood the message from protesters. “What is the message? I want to hear it from you,” he retorted.

He spoke to reporters before leaving on a four-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

President Abdullah Gul – who shares a pedigree with Mr Erdogan in political Islam – took a more conciliatory line, celebrating peaceful protest as a democratic right. The two could compete against each other next year in Turkey’s presidential election.

“When we speak of democracy, of course the will of the people is above all,” Mr Gul said. “But democracy does not mean elections alone. There can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways besides elections.”

In Ankara, protesters threw up a barricade in the Kizilay government quarter and lit a fire in the road as a helicopter circled overhead. Police charged demonstrators, mostly teenagers, and scattered them using tear gas and water cannon.

Mr Erdogan has dismissed the protests as the work of secularist enemies never reconciled to the mandate of his AK party, which has roots in Islamist parties banned in the past but which also embraces centre-right and nationalist elements. The party has won three straight elections and overseen an economic boom, increasing Turkey’s influence in the region.

Turkey’s left-wing Public Workers Unions Confederation, which has 240,000 members, is to hold a “warning strike” today and tomorrow to protest over the crackdown.

Since taking office in 2002, Mr Erdogan has dramatically cut back the power of the army, which overthrew four governments in the second half of the 20th century and which hanged and jailed many, including a prime minister.

The wind of change has also swept through the judiciary. While Mr Erdogan was jailed in the 1990s for promoting Islamism by reciting a poem, a musician was recently imprisoned for blasphemy after mocking religion in a tweet.