ISTANBUL // The Turkish government yesterday said it would call in the military if police could not stop nationwide protests that have entered a third week.
Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister, made the warning as trade union members took to the streets with anti-government protesters.
The government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced an unprecedented wave of protests since May 31, when a police crack-down on a sit-in by environmentalists in Istanbul's Gezi Park sparked demonstrations and clashes all over the country.
Mr Erdogan said yesterday that the protests were "targeting democracy" and accused demonstrators of "vandalism and barbarism". A former minister also warned that the country was sliding into civil war.
Mr Arinc said yesterday that the government would deploy the army if they deemed it necessary.
"Military forces can also be used to secure order" if unrest was spreading and provincial governors called for the army, he said. Units of the military police were deployed in Istanbul last weekend for the first time.
More than a million people so far have taken part in protest marches in 78 of Turkey's 81 provinces, Mr Arinc said. Five people have died and more than 7,000 people have been injured while police have detained hundreds of protesters, although many have been released.
Several thousand supporters of five trade unions and professional associations with a combined membership of more than 400,000 joined activists from Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of the protest movement, for a planned march in central Istanbul yesterday.
As demonstrators gathered, police blocked streets leading to the square. Following negotiations with police, most of the protesters dispersed, but there were clashes later between police and smaller groups of demonstrators trying to get through to the square, with the police using water cannon and tear gas.
Marches of thousands of protesters in the coastal city of Izmir and the capital Ankara ended peacefully.
The peaceful protests followed a day of clashes in several Turkish cities and a show of strength by supporters of Mr Erdogan at a meeting attended by several hundred thousand people in Istanbul on Sunday.
In another sign of rising tensions, supporters of Mr Erdogan and protesters clashed in the central Anatolian city of Konya on Sunday.
News reports said a small rally of several dozen anti-government protesters in the city attracted a much larger crowd of government supporters, some of whom beat protesters. Police intervened and saved the protesters by driving them away in police buses, the reports said.
Yasar Okuyan, a conservative politician and former Turkish labour minister, warned that the country was sliding into "civil war".
Speaking in the north-west city of Yalova last Saturday, Mr Okuyan said that a high-ranking police officer in Istanbul had compared his units facing demonstrators with soldiers fighting in a war.
"Is your fellow citizen an enemy?" Mr Okuyan asked. "This mentality is pushing Turkey towards civil war."
Ertugrul Gunay, a former minister for culture in Mr Erdogan's government and a representative of the small liberal wing of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), warned the ruling party that the government's tough stance was scaring off some of its supporters.
"An important part of those people who pour out on to the squares voted for us" in a referendum on constitutional changes in 2010 and in the general elections in 2011, Mr Gunay said on Twitter.
According to a new poll, almost 50 per cent of voters think that the Erdogan government is moving towards authoritarianism. About 54 per cent have the impression that the government is meddling in their private lives.
The poll, conducted between June 3 and June 12, also suggested that the AKP was losing voter support and that Mr Erdogan's popularity was sliding. Last week, other surveys suggested that support for the ruling party had remained firm.
The new poll said 35.3 per cent would vote AKP if elections were held today, compared with 46.5 per cent who expressed support for the ruling party in June last year. Mr Erdogan's popularity dropped from 60.7 per cent in April to 53.5 per cent this month.
The Turkish government's handling of the protests drew fresh criticism from Europe yesterday.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was shocked at Turkey's tough response to the protests, but she stopped short of demanding that the European Union call off accession talks with the country.
"I'm appalled, like many others," Ms Merkel said. "I would like to see those who have criticism, who have a different opinion and a different idea of society, having some space in a Turkey that moves into the 21st century."
But Mr Erdogan said Europeans were themselves "anti-democratic" because they had expressed support for protesters "who attack the freedom of others".
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters