ISTANBUL -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan staged a massive political rally Sunday to demonstrate that his popular strength will succeed Turkey’s political crisis, even as clashes spread to new parts of Istanbul between police firing teargas and water cannon and youthful protesters throwing stones and erecting barricades.
The confrontation had begun to recede last week after talks between the government and protesters occupying a small downtown park slated for destruction before Erdogan’s decision to clear the park by force Saturday evening provoked a new round of more violent protests throughout the weekend.
Speaking before hundreds of thousands bused to an Istanbul site by his Justice and Development party, Erdogan vigorously defended that decision to clear Istanbul’s Taksim square and Gezi Park as his “duty” and linked the protesters to two terror incidents.
“I said we were at an end, that it was unbearable. Yesterday the operation was carried out, and it was cleaned up. It was my duty as prime minister,” he said.
Erdogan took two more small steps backward in the crisis, which his own government prompted by ordering the destruction of one of the few patches of green in Istanbul’s commercial district to put up a shopping mall. In what has become an ever-shrinking project, he promised Sunday that 500 of the 600 trees at Gezi park would remain, and that the city would build a cultural center instead of a shopping emporium.
The prime minister also lashed out at western news organizations for allegedly overstating the dimensions of the crisis and at the European Parliament for criticizing the crackdown. Addressing the British Broadcasting Corporation, the U.S. CNN network and the Reuters news agency, he charged: “you have been fabricating lies for days and misrepresenting Turkey.”
As for the European Parliament, he said, “We don’t recognize you. Who are you to give your judgment on our decision? What did you do in the cases of Greece, England, Germany and France?” several of which have had violent unrest in the past year. His ire at the parliament carried an undertone of bitterness that almost entirely Muslim Turkey still hasn’t been admitted tp the European Union, a half century after first applying.
Erdogan’s two-hour speech, delivered without notes, was rambling and repetitive and failed to arouse much excitement in the crowd, which chanted “Turkey is proud of you” every so often. The event seemed incongruous to a foreign observer, considering that the spark that set off nationwide protests was the use of excessive police force to end the original sit-in at Gezi park, for which his government has apologized.
Lest any of his listeners think they were there to defend the prime minister of over how many trees would be felled, Erdogan declared that the crisis had become much bigger than the park. “The issue is not Gezi Park. It is toppling this government,” he said. “Fine. If you want to topple the government, the way to do it is clear. What is it? The ballot box.”
Violence spread Sunday after the government declared that any protesters who entered Taksim square, adjacent to the park, would be viewed as “terrorists.” Police “will intervene against anybody who tries to enter Taksim Square, (treating them) as a terrorist,” Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, Egeman Bagis, said in a radio interview.
By late Sunday night, some police were labeling anyone with the standard gear for the protests -- a plastic hard hat, swim goggles and a surgical mask to protect against flying teargas canisters -- a terrorist. A McClatchy reporter returning from the rally on foot, due to the closure of public transit, encountered a group of policemen was said his gear marked him as a terrorist.
Throughout Sunday, riot police fired water cannon and teargas at protesters to prevent them from coming anywhere near Taksim Square, and there were incidents in at least 16 places, according to a McClatchy tally.
Outside the McClatchy office in Istanbul, hundreds of protesters, most likely coming via ferryboat across the Bosphorus from Istanbul’s Asian subdivisions, were marching noisily towards the Istiklal, the main pedestrian street, which leads to Taksim square, when a riot control vehicle appeared at the top of the street and fired round after round of water infused with teargas. The protesters fell back, but not for long. They advanced again, and police responded with another volley of water and teargas.
Earlier in the day, protesters marched through the Sisli area near one of Istanbul’s biggest shopping centers, calling for Erdogan’s resignation, when police appeared and broke up the protest with teargas.
Even in the working class area of Kasimpasa, where Erdogan grew up, protesters built new barricades, and police responded with teargas. The Galata bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn, was closed to streetcars and cars Sunday evening, following clashes near the Karakoy ferry port, and a McClatchy reporter saw young protesters breaking off iron fences to separate pedestrians from vehicles at the other end of the bridge – possibly to build barricades.
In upscale Nisantasi, a mile or so from Taksim square, protesters packed the Vali Konagi street and were building barricades, but police firing teargas dispersed them to nearby side streets, according to a report posted on the Istanbul Foreign Press Association bulletin board.
Possibly the most ominous clash Sunday night, which did not involve the police, occurred in the side streets of Zeytinburnu, close to where Erdogan staged his rally. There, Erdogan backers honking their horns in the gridlocked traffic prompted Erdogan opponents to open their windows and bang spoons on their pots and pans, one of the hallmarks of the protesters. A McClatchy reporter happened upon the cacophony and heard Istanbul residents on either side challenge each other, a sign of the polarization that is beginning to affect the city’s neighborhoods.
The protests seem certain to continue and could widen, depending on whether one or both sides is determined to have its way.
On Monday, Turkish labor unions called a one day strike that will affect professionals and civil servants to protest the newest round of government violence against the protesters.
(Special correspondents Joel Thomas and Ceren Kenar contributed)