By Humeyra Pamuk and Ayla Jean Yackley
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told thousands of cheering supporters on Friday his authority came from the ballot box and urged them not to be drawn into violence, in a show of ruling party strength after a week of fierce anti-government protests.
Addressing crowds at Istanbul airport from an open-top bus after returning from a trip to North Africa, Erdogan called on his ruling party faithful to show restraint and distance themselves from “dirty games” and “lawless protests”.
Turkey has been rocked by its worst political unrest for decades over the past week, as anti-government riots dented Erdogan’s authority, sullied the country’s image abroad and highlighted concerns about human rights and freedom of speech in the EU candidate nation.
“We stood strong, but we were never stubborn … We are together, we are unified, we are brothers,” Erdogan told his supporters, who had blocked roads to the airport for hours, waiting for him until long after midnight. He began his address at about 2 a.m. (1900 ET)
“Some people say, ‘The prime minister is only prime minister to 50 per cent’. We have always said that we are the servants of 76 million,” he said, as the crowds chanted his name.
What began as a campaign against planned construction on a leafy park in a corner of Istanbul’s Taksim Square has grown into an unprecedented display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.
Police backed by armored vehicles and helicopters have clashed with groups of protesters night after night, leaving three dead and some 4,000 injured, while thousands of Erdogan’s opponents have massed peacefully in Taksim, surrounded by barricades of torn-up paving stones and street signs.
They gathered again ahead of Erdogan’s return.
Some of the demonstrators in Taksim chanted “Tayyip resign”, while others sang and danced. In Ankara’s Kugulu Park, thousands chanted anti-government slogans, sang the national anthem and swigged on beer.
“It’s all up to Erdogan and what he says right now. He will decide the fate of this resistance, whether it will calm (down) or escalate,” said Mehmet Polat, 42, a ship captain who has not worked all week, coming instead to protest at Taksim.
“These people have been here for days. He has to understand it is for a reason,” he said.
DEFIANT BUT CONCILIATORY
Erdogan has so far struck a defiant tone. Speaking in Tunis on Thursday, he condemned the “burn and destroy” tactics of some of those involved in the protests, and promised to press ahead with the plans for Taksim that triggered the unrest.
He said that “terror groups”, including one that claimed responsibility for a February 1 bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, were manipulating the crowds.
Erdogan struck a firm but arguably more conciliatory tone at the airport, clearly playing to the gallery but also acknowledging accusations of excessive police force and pledging to work to foster unity in the wake of the protests.
“We have not marginalized anyone’s beliefs … We are Turkey together, we are brothers. We will evaluate everything that has taken place in Turkey and based on that take a step,” he said.
“The secret to our success is not tension and polarization.”
The protesters are of a variety of political stripes, including far leftists, nationalists, environmentalists and secular Turks, and their numbers at Taksim have swollen at points to more than an estimated 100,000.
But despite the unrest, Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician, his assertive style and common touch resonating with the conservative Islamic heartland.
His AK Party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive elections and holds around two thirds of the seats in parliament. A man who rarely bows to any opposition, he clearly has no intention of stepping down and there are no obvious rivals inside or outside his party.
Still, he faces a challenge in calming the protests without appearing to lose face.
“Erdogan cannot backtrack now. It would mean defeat,” said Ali Aydin, 38, a car dealer in the Tophane neighborhood of Istanbul, a conservative bastion in the mostly Bohemian district around Taksim Square. “Weakness would destroy the party.”