ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told flag-waving supporters on Sunday that his patience with mass anti-government protests had its limits, and moved to seize back the initiative by announcing counter-rallies next weekend.
As Erdogan spoke in the capital Ankara, tens of thousands massed in an Istanbul square to demand his resignation. In Ankara’s Kizilay district, riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to flush anti-government demonstrators from a square.
The majority Muslim but constitutionally secular nation has been shaken by a week of its fiercest protests in decades, unrest which has exposed fault lines between a religiously conservative heartland fiercely supportive of Erdogan and a secular middle class who fear creeping authoritarianism.
Addressing thousands of cheering followers at Ankara airport, one of six rallies on Sunday, Erdogan accused the protesters of drinking beer in mosques and insulting women wearing headscarves, a symbol of Islamic piety - both accusations likely to anger his supporters.
“With our government, our party and most importantly our nation, it is we who have defended, and are most strongly defending, democracy, law and freedoms,” he told crowds chanting slogans including “We are ready to sacrifice our lives for you Tayyip”.
“We were patient, we will be patient, but there is an end to patience,” he said, to chants of “Rich people of Istanbul, evacuate Gezi Park immediately”.
At a rival rally at Gezi Park in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, where riot police backed by helicopters and armored vehicles first clashed with protesters a week ago, tens of thousands chanted for the prime minister to quit.
The crowd included secularists carrying flags portraying secular state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, leftists, nationalists and other groups opposed to Erdogan, who has won three election victories since 2002.
A large area around the square was closed to traffic, approach roads barricaded with paving stones and debris.
Erdogan called on his supporters to mass in Ankara on Saturday and Istanbul on Sunday. But he also urged patience, telling them: “There will be elections in seven or eight months. We will speak at the ballot boxes”.
He suggested Turkey was at a historic moment.
“Today we are not at May 27, 1960, nor are we at September 12, 1980, nor are we at February 28, 1997,” he said, referring to two coups led by a staunchly secular military and a third in which an Islamist-led government was forced to resign.
“Today, we are exactly where we were on April 27, 2007,” he said, referring to the election of Abdullah Gul to the presidency, a post seen as guardian of the state’s secular foundations, despite his history in political Islam.
It was seen by supporters of the AK Party, founded by Erdogan and Gul in 2001, as a final victory over a military that had toppled four governments in four decades.
“TEACH THEM A LESSON”
What began as a campaign against government plans to build over Gezi Park has spiraled into an unprecedented display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.
Police fired teargas and water cannon at protesters night after night in Istanbul and Ankara last week, in clashes that have left three dead and close to 5,000 injured.
Speaking earlier in the southern Mediterranean coastal city of Adana, Erdogan dismissed the protesters and told cheering crowds to “teach them a lesson” at the ballot box next year, when Turkey holds local and presidential elections.
“Those now at Taksim, those who burn and destroy, those at various places across the country, I ask them, in the name of which freedom are you doing this?” Erdogan said at the opening of the Mediterranean Games, an international sports event.
“You should teach them a lesson at the ballot box ... You will go from door to door, house to house and work hard.”
Still by far Turkey’s most popular politician, Erdogan has pressed on with government business as usual despite the unrest.
The AK Party has ruled out early elections and senior party officials said they may call their own public meetings in Istanbul and Ankara next week.
“My beloved brothers, we’re walking towards a better Turkey. Don’t allow those who attempt to plant divisive seeds to do so,” Erdogan said at another speech in the southern city of Adana on Sunday, from atop of a bus emblazoned with his picture and the AK Party’s slogan, “Big Country, Big Power”.
The organizers of the initial protests in Taksim, calling themselves Taksim Solidarity, repeated their call for the redevelopment plans in the square to be abandoned, police use of teargas to be banned, those responsible for police violence to be dismissed and bans on demonstrations to be lifted.
“The demands are obvious. We call on government to take account of the reaction (on the street), act responsibly and fulfill demands being expressed by millions of people every day,” the group said in a statement.
Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside, pointing to the AK Party’s rising share of the vote in the past three elections, and has no clear rivals inside the party or out.
He has enacted many democratic reforms, taming the military after the string of coups, starting entry talks with the European Union and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decade-old war.
But in recent years, critics say his style, always forceful and emotional, has become authoritarian.
Media have come under pressure, journalists have been imprisoned, opponents have been arrested over alleged coup plots and moves such as restrictions on alcohol sales have unsettled secular middle-class Turks who are sensitive to any encroachment of religion on their daily lives.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Sunday for an end to violence and for reports of police abuses to be properly investigated.
“It is essential that all violence stops and that all cases of excessive use of force by the police are recognized as such and investigated promptly, and that those responsible are held fully accountable,” Ashton said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; editing by Tom Pfeiffer