ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Police in Ankara fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse thousands of people protesting near government buildings on Saturday, as Turkey’s biggest wave of anti-government protests in decades entered its second week with no signs of waning.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governing party, meanwhile, rejected calls for early elections, and dismissed the protests as an attempt by the opposition to topple the government.
The protests, sparked by outrage over a violent police action to oust an environmental protest in Isanbul’s Taksim Square on May 31, and which have spread to dozens of cities across Turkey, are the first serious challenge to Erdogan’s leadership.
Three people have died — two protesters and a policeman — and thousands have been injured so far.
The protests have become a general condemnation of Erdogan, whom many consider to have grown authoritarian in his 10 years in power, and accuse of trying to introduce his religious and conservative mores in a country governed by secular laws.
He convened the leadership of his Justice and Development party to discuss the protests Saturday afternoon.
Speaking after the meeting, party spokesman Huseyin Celik said rumors that the 2015 general elections would be moved forward were “totally baseless, totally unnecessary, made-up and imaginary,”
Celik also accused the main opposition party of trying to topple Erdogan through illegitimate means, “having failed seven times to beat (the Justice party) in the ballot boxes.”
The head of Turkey’s nationalist party, Devlet Bahceli, had called for early elections for Erdogan to reaffirm his mandate.
“The prime minister’s stance and the tumult have deepened the crisis,” Bahceli told reporters. “The prime minister’s time is up, we believe he has to renew his mandate.”
The protests have attracted a broad array of people angered by what they say are Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways and his intervention in private lives. They point to attempts to curtail the selling and promotion of alcohol, his comments on how women should dress and statements that each woman should have at least three children.
A devout Muslim who says he is committed to upholding Turkey’s secular tradition, Erdogan vehemently rejects charges of autocracy and points out that he enjoyed 50 percent support in the last elections in 2011.
The protests began as a sit-in at Taksim’s Gezi Park to prevent a redevelopment project that would replace the park with replica Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall. The mall idea has since been scrapped, with Erdogan recently saying an opera house, theater and possibly a museum would be built instead.
Erdogan said Friday that the protests must end immediately. However, they show no signs of abating.
On Saturday, thousands of fans from Istanbul’s rival football teams, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, set aside their usual rivalry to march together and join protesters in Taksim Square.
They set off dozens of flares, which streaked into the night sky above the packed square.
A group of Besiktas fans also marched in Ankara.
“We are against injustice,” said Kerim Yilmaz, 26, who heads a fans group in Ankara, told The Associated Press. “Our friends’ and all of our freedoms are being limited. We do not want our green areas to be used for shopping malls. We all want to live freely. We are here to defend our freedom.”
Police in the capital used tear gas and water cannon to scatter thousands of people marching to an area close to Erdogan’s office and to Parliament on Saturday. Police and protesters also clashed in Istanbul’s Sultangazi suburb.
Over the past week, protesters — mainly young, secular and middle-class, but also including some religious Muslims who were formerly Erdogan supporters — have set up camp in Gezi Park. They have vowed to remain there until the development project for the area is canceled — something Erdogan has shown no signs of being willing to do.
Asked at a news conference after Erdogan’s party meeting about the barricades that protesters have set up on streets around Taksim, and about the protesters’ encampment in the park, Celik said that “the process is under government control, there is no need for concern.”
He didn’t specify what action might be taken if the protesters do not give up their occupation of Taksim.
“Of course we would not be disturbed by people making their wishes, their grievances, their objections known through democratic means,” he said. “But if the protests turn into something else and reach the level of terror, then they become unjust even if demands are just.”
Erdogan has previously said that “terrorists” are involved in the protests, in an apparent reference to the participation of some left-wing groups sympathizing with an outlawed, violent far-left organization.
Celik reiterated a claim made by Erdogan that the unrest has been fuelled by the “interest rate lobby,” implying that a banking conspiracy was at work to destabilize the country’s economy.
On Saturday, Istanbul’s mayor confirmed that the government would go ahead with plans to reconstruct the Ottoman barracks in Taksim but had abandoned plans to build a shopping mall, luxury hotel or residences. He said all projects would progress in consultation with civil society groups.
Becatoros reported from Istanbul. Ezgi Akin and Mehmet Guzel in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.