By Nick Tattersall and Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish riot police fought running battles with pockets of protesters overnight, clearing the central Istanbul square that has been the focus of nearly two weeks of protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
By dawn, Taksim Square, strewn with wreckage from bulldozed barricades, was largely deserted and taxis crossed it for the first time since the troubles started. Several hundred remained in an encampment of tents in Gezi Park abutting the square.
Erdogan, who has repeatedly dismissed the demonstrators as “riff-raff”, was expected to meet a grouping of public figures about the protests on Wednesday. In the fighting talk that first endeared him to voters 10 years ago, he said on Tuesday he would not kneel before the protesters and that “this Tayyip Erdogan won’t change”.
The United States, which has held up Erdogan’s Turkey in the past as an example of Muslim democracy that could benefit other countries in the Middle East, expressed concern about events in Turkey and urged dialogue between government and protesters.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday the Turkish government was sending the wrong signal at home and abroad with its reaction to protests, describing pictures from Taksim square as disturbing.
“We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation, in the spirit of European values, and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue,” Westerwelle said in a statement.
Erdogan, though, has increasingly accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of stoking conflict and trying to undermine the economy of the only largely Muslim NATO state.
Turkish markets stabilized slightly on Wednesday, gaining 2.2 percent, having been hit by a sharp sell-off sparked by the protests. Stocks have fallen by more than 20 percent since 31 May.
Erdogan has also exerted strong pressure on the media, seven newspapers last week carrying the identical headline citing Erdogan as saying he, not the protesters, guaranteed democracy.
Turkey’s broadcasting authority announced on Wednesday it was fining four television channels over their coverage of the protests on the grounds of inciting violence, media reports said. It was not clear how much they would be fined.
The night had brought some of the worst clashes since the troubles began. Police fired tear gas into thousands of people gathered on the square, including people in office clothes who had gathered after work, some with families with children.
The crowd scattered into narrow streets around, leaving a hard core of protesters to return, lighting bonfires and stoning water cannon. Police then launched tear gas attacks again, the cycle repeating itself until numbers dwindled.
“We will continue our measures in an unremitting manner, whether day or night, until marginal elements are cleared and the square is open to the people,” Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu declared on television on Tuesday night.
Police were less in evidence by the morning and it was not clear if protesters would return in the course of the day, as they have previously.
A fierce crackdown on initial protests against planned redevelopment of Gezi Park, a leafy corner of Taksim, triggered the wider protests, drawing in a broad alliance of secularists, nationalists, professional workers, unionists and students – some of whom would never before have considered sharing a political platform.
Erdogan argues that the broader mass of people are at best the unwitting tools of political extremists and terrorists and points to his 50 percent vote in the last of three successive electoral victories for his political authority.
His critics, some of whom who say conservative religious elements have won out over centrist reformers in his AK Party, accuse him an increasingly authoritarian conduct and of inflaming the crisis with unyielding talk.
Some charge that his politics are too often shaped by a religious agenda, with the introduction of alcohol restrictions and comments suggesting he favors a traditionalist role for women.
For his part, Erdogan has complained of the contempt he feels secularist leaders have shown in the past for religious sentiments, excluding women with head scarves from universities. He has accused protesters of attacking women in headscarves and of desecrating mosques by bringing in beer.
“There’s no room for dialogue when there’s ongoing violence,” said Mucella Yapici of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a core group behind the Gezi Park campaign.
Three people have died in the unrest and Turkey’s Medical Association said that, as of late on Monday, almost 5,000 people had been sought hospital treatment since the unrest began.
Gezi Park has been turned into a ramshackle settlement of tents by leftists, environmentalists, liberals, students and professionals who see a plan to develop one of the few green spaces in Istanbul as symptomatic of an overbearing government.
Erdogan swept to power in 2002 after forging his AK Party from an alliance of centrist reformers and nationalists as well as remnants of Islamist parties banned in the past by secular authorities. Denying any plans to subvert Turkey’s secular order, he set about deep-reaching social reforms.
He broke the political power of an army that had toppled four governments over four decades, including Turkey’s first Islamist-led government with which he was associated. He also opened talks with the European Union, introduced some social reforms and sought to negotiate an end to a long-running Kurdish rebellion.
What is notably absent during this crisis is the speculation of a military coup that has in the past accompanied social unrest – some tribute to Erdogan’s reforms. Army power is broken. Nor though does there seem to be any political alternative to Erdogan, who faces a weak opposition in parliament and fragmented groups on the streets.
(Additional reporting by Can Sezer, Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Parisa Hafezi, Humeyra Pamuk in Ankara and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Jon Boyle)
[An injured demonstrator looks out of his tent at Gezi Park in central Istanbul June 12, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal]