KAYSERI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan kicks off a weekend of rallies in his conservative strongholds on Friday, displaying his grassroots support after weeks of often violent anti-government protests.
Tens of thousands are expected to gather in a square in Kayseri, an industrial city in Turkey's pious Anatolian heartland, to hear the blunt-talking 59-year-old urge voters to back his ruling AK Party before municipal polls next March.
Similar rallies are planned for the weekend in the eastern city of Erzurum and Samsun on the Black Sea coast.
The meetings follow three weeks of protests against Erdogan's perceived authoritarianism, unrest which dented Turkey's image for stability and riled a leader who sees himself as a champion of democratic reform.
He has dismissed the protesters as "riff-raff" manipulated by "terrorists" and has accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of seeking to stoke the unrest in what he has termed a "game being played with Turkey".
"Let's spoil the big game, let's write history" read a slogan on banners around the Kayseri square, while portraits of Erdogan hung on surrounding buildings.
"My master, it's been 10 years since you arrived. You have transformed Turkey," read another, playing on Erdogan's own description of his third term as that of a "master", borrowing from the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan and the last stage of his career after apprenticeship and graduation.
Cities like Kayseri, one of the "Anatolian Tigers" whose small industries have flourished under a decade of AK Party rule, have been spared the sort of clashes concentrated in Istanbul, the capital Ankara and the nearby city of Eskisehir.
Here, Erdogan has widespread support.
"We have voted for him for the past three elections and I can't think of anyone else to vote for at the next one as well," said Tuba Ikiz, a 27-year-old shopkeeper wearing a headscarf.
Erdogan, who won his third consecutive election in 2011 with 50 percent support, has enacted democratic reforms, including 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; others, including academics, journalists and politicians, face trial on similar accusations.
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 fuelled their suspicions that he has a creeping Islamist agenda.
RESENTMENT TURNS TO VIOLENCE
That resentment spilled into open protest when police cracked down on a group of environmentalists opposed to his plans to develop a central Istanbul square in late May, spreading to other cities and turning violent night after night.
The streets of Turkey's largest city have been calmer in recent days, with hundreds of silent, standing protesters in Taksim Square taking the place of clashes between police firing tear gas and water cannon at stone-throwing demonstrators.
Sporadic violence has continued, including in Ankara where around 1,000 people took to the streets overnight, and in Mersin, on Turkey's southern coast, where riot police also used water cannon and teargas to break up demonstrations as Erdogan attended the opening ceremony of the Mediterranean Games.
Four protesters and two police officers were wounded, according to Dogan news agency.
The unrest has underlined divisions in Turkish society between religious conservatives who form the bedrock of Erdogan's support, and more liberal Turks who have swelled the numbers of peaceful demonstrators.
The severity of the police crackdown, particularly in the initial days, has drawn international condemnation, especially from key trade partner Germany, casting a shadow over Turkey's long-stalled talks on joining the European Union.
But some government ministers have struck a more conciliatory tone this week as the protests have generally become less tense, with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc saying the silent protests "should be encouraged".