Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been greeted by thousands of supporters as he returned from an overseas trip early to a country rocked by a week of anti-government protests.
Erdogan smiled and waved at crowds of flag-waving supporters, chanting “we will die for you”, gathered at the Istanbul airport in the early hours of Friday morning where he arrived, in the largest public boost yet for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in seven days of nationwide unrest.
“We are the servants of 76 million people not the 50 percent … we ask everyone to respect the election results as we do so,” Erdogan told his crowd of supporters.
“Demonstrations which were held for less than 15 trees left three people dead,” he said, referring to the ongoing protests.
“No one, apart from God, can prevent the rise of Turkey,” he said in conclusion.
Istanbul Municipality ruled by Erdogan’s AK Party extended the metro hours until 4am (local time) to allow his supporters to commute to the airport more easily.
Thousands of anti-government protesters also massed in Istanbul’s Taksim Square for a seventh straight night, some chanting “Tayyip resign”, others singing and dancing. In Ankara’s Kugulu Park, thousands chanted anti-government slogans, sang the national anthem and swigged on beer.
We are the servants of 76 million people not the 50 percent ... we ask everyone to respect the election results as we do so
What began as a campaign against the redevelopment of a leafy park in a corner of 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 armoured 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.
“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.
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.
“If you say: ‘I will hold a meeting and burn and destroy,’ we will not allow that,” he told reporters after meeting his Tunisian counterpart. “We are against the majority dominating the minority and we cannot tolerate the opposite.”
Erdogan said that “terror groups”, including one that claimed responsibility for a February 1 bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara, were manipulating the crowds. Seven foreigners were among those arrested, according to the Turkish interior ministry.
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 neighbourhood of Istanbul, a conservative bastion in the mostly Bohemian district around Taksim Square.
“Weakness would destroy the party.”