Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has described anti-government protesters as “looters” in front of a large crowd of his supporters in Ankara.
Speaking to tens of thousands of cheering supporters in the Turkish capital, on Sunday, Erdogan said his patience with mass anti-government protests had its limits as he announced counter-rallies next weekend.
His latest warnings, however, were ignored by those who protested for a tenth straight day in Istanbul, the country’s biggest city, as well as in Ankara’s Kizilay district, where riot police used tear-gas and water cannon to disperse anti-government demonstrators from a square.
Turkey, a constitutionally secular country, 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 supporters at Ankara airport – one of Sunday’s six rallies – Erdogan accused the protesters of drinking beer in mosques and insulting women wearing headscarves, a symbol of Islamic piety.
“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,” Erdogan said to chants of “Rich people of Istanbul, evacuate Gezi Park immediately”.
He called on his supporters to gather 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”.
Erdogan 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 a conservative-led government was forced to resign.
“Today, we are exactly where we were on April 27, 2007,” Erdogan 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 governing AK Party, founded by Erdogan and Gul in 2001, as a final victory over a military that had toppled four governments in four decades.
What began as a campaign against government plans to build over Gezi Park has expanded into a display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.
Police fired tear-gas 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.
Again on Sunday, tens of thousands of Turks chanted for Erdogan to quit at Gezi Park in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, where riot police backed by helicopters and armoured vehicles first clashed with protesters a week ago.
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.