ISTANBUL -- Police clashed with anti-government protesters in major cities around Turkey for a fourth day Monday as one of the country’s biggest public service unions threatened a nationwide strike Tuesday to show its discontent with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
In Ankara, police in helicopters, firing tear gas and plastic bullets, pursued groups of demonstrators throughout the city, Turkish television reported; on the ground, they discharged tear gas at one group of about 1,000 demonstrators. But more young people flocked to the city center.
In the western port city of Izmir, protesters threw fire bombs at the offices of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party overnight, setting the building ablaze, Turkish television reported.
In Istanbul, where the protests began over the government’s plans to build a shopping center in one of the few parks in the city center, a Turkish doctors association announced the first fatality of the clashes – a young leftist who was killed when a car struck him during a protest on a major highway.
The Obama administration Monday took the unusual step of delivering a public dressing down of the Turkish government, a vital ally, for excess use of force.
Secretary of State John Kerry called for “a full investigation” of reports of excessive force and “full restraint from police.” He urged both the government and the protesters “to avoid any provocations and violence.”
The White House said those protesting were peaceful, law-abiding citizens, exercising their right to free expression – a very different take on the nature of the protests from that offered by Erdogan.
The combative leader, boasting that he’s won three elections and has the support of half the country, showed no intention of defusing the tensions, which erupted after police used heavy-handed tactics against a peaceful protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park that began last week after workers began chopping down trees. After calling the protesters “looters” and “extremists” over the weekend, he charged on Monday that they were walking “arm in arm with terrorists,” Reuters reported.
The secularist opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, “could have provoked the uprising,” Erdogan said, adding: “If not the CHP, who else is there?” Then he hinted that he had the power to order up counterdemonstrations. “There is a 50 percent (of the population) we are having trouble keeping at home,” he said. “We are saying, ‘Careful, calm.’”
Erdogan, a leader in the Islamic world who left on a three-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia on Monday, has built the Turkish economy to be one of the strongest in Europe, restored civil control over the military and launched immense public works projects. But he routinely dismisses the political opposition in Parliament as treasonous and has intimidated the country’s news media into a submissive stance.
Erdogan also has a reputation as a micro-manager. He personally ordered what had been planned as a replica of an artillery barracks be turned into a shopping mall after a board of conservation rejected the plan.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the all-news NTV channel Monday, protesting that it had failed to cover the protests in the first two days.
A columnist for the newspaper Taraf, well-known for his ties to the Turkish police, said Erdogan himself had been directing the police crackdown, raising the question of how he would carry on doing this from abroad.
The protesters, whose “down with the government” chant could be heard all over central Istanbul Monday, aren’t alone in their criticism of Erdogan.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, whose job is mostly ceremonial but who has won wide respect for level-headedness, has upbraided Erdogan in public remarks, though not by name. After police assaults injured at least 100 and sent dozens to hospitals Friday, Gul declared: “It behooves us all to act with maturity.” He said he’d gone to Erdogan Saturday morning and told him that “authorities should work harder to give ear to different thoughts and concerns.”
On Monday, he emerged again, responding to Erdogan’s boasts that he was re-elected twice, each time with a broader majority, and that protesters should respect the will of the majority.
“Democracy is not only about elections,” Gul said. “Peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy. We can see the events of recent days from this perspective.”
Those demonstrating up to now have been mainly high school and university students, but the threat of a national strike by public employees raised the possibility of a challenge the government will find difficult to manage.
The Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions said it will start a two-day strike Tuesday, involving a quarter-million workers in 11 unions representing education, health, municipal services, energy, mining and transport, which, depending on turnout, could bring public services to a standstill.
They’d be striking to protest new laws reducing job security, a motive far different from that which drew tens of thousands of youthful demonstrators into the streets over the weekend. But the timing of the proposed strike was intended to show solidarity with the Gezi Park protesters and feed what appears to be a generalized dissatisfaction among some with Erdogan, who has been prime minister for 10 years.
The strike also could create the same kind of symbolism that turned Cairo’s Tahrir Square into a center of protest in Egypt.
Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which abuts Gezi Park, is a traditional gathering place for union demonstrations and now is ground zero of the anti-Erdogan movement. The trade unionists likely will use the day to avenge Erdogan’s most recent assault on their movement, the banning on May 1, the traditional Labor Day celebration in Europe, of any march or demonstration. Police locked down Istanbul on that day, blocking with barricades entry to the main shopping area, a move that led to clashes with labor and political leaders who tried to reach the square.
Taksim Square has been under the control of protesters since Saturday, when police withdrew from the area, and the presence of trade unionists, angry at the prime minister, is likely to breathe new life into the protest.