ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Sporadic clashes between police and protesters flared up in Istanbul overnight after a weekend in which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sought to steal back the agenda, rallying his supporters and expelling demonstrators from an Istanbul park.
Two union federations called a nationwide strike for Monday over the forced eviction of protesters from Gezi Park, a leafy corner of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and the focus of two weeks of fierce anti-government demonstrations that have spread to other big cities.
Labour groups representing doctors, engineers and dentists said they too would take part.
Hundreds of thousands of Erdogan supporters gathered to hear the prime minister speak at an Istanbul parade ground on Sunday as riot police fired teargas a few kilometres away in the city center to disperse protesters.
A defiant Erdogan told a sea of flag-waving supporters that two weeks of unrest had been manipulated by “terrorists” and dismissed suggestions that he was behaving like a dictator, a constant refrain from those who have taken to the streets.
“They say ‘you are too tough’, they say ‘dictator’. What kind of a dictator is this who met the Gezi Park occupiers and honest environmentalists? Is there such a dictator?” Erdogan said to roars of approval from the crowd.
He dismissed the demonstrations as “nothing more than the minority’s attempt to dominate the majority ... We could not have allowed this and we will not allow it.”
Riot police backed by a helicopter, some in plain clothes and carrying batons, fired teargas and chased gangs of rock-throwing youths into side streets around Taksim late on Sunday, trying to prevent them from regrouping.
There were also disturbances in other parts of the city that had so far largely been spared the violence, including around the Galata bridge, which crosses to the historic Sultanahmet district, and the upmarket Nisantasi neighbourhood.
A small-scale environmental protest quickly spread into a much larger movement involving people from all walks of life who dislike what they say is Erdogan’s domineering leadership style and his government’s unnecessary meddling in people’s lives.
The clashes pose no immediate threat to Erdogan’s leadership, but they have tarnished Turkey’s image as an oasis of stability on the fringes of the volatile Middle East, and presented him with the greatest challenge of his 10-year rule.
The blunt-talking prime minister has long been Turkey’s most popular politician, overseeing a decade of unprecedented prosperity, and his AK Party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive election victories.
Erdogan, who also addressed supporters of his ruling AK Party in Ankara on Saturday, said the rallies were to kick off campaigning for local elections next year and not related to the unrest, but they were widely seen as a show of strength.
The crowds who packed Istanbul’s Kazlicesme festival ground, many of whom walked for kilometres, turned out to support a leader who they feel has been under siege.
“We are the silent majority, not the riff-raff who are trying to frighten us,” said Ruveyda Alkan, 32, her head covered in a black veil and waving a red Turkish flag.
The two weeks of unrest have left four people dead and about 5,000 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
Additional reporting by Seda Sezer, Can Sezer, Asli Kandemir in Istanbul, Jonathon Burch and Humeyra Pamuk in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mike Collett-White