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Supporters back Erdogan to ride out protests

Turkish prime minister's broad support base dismissive of week-long protests across the country.
The Turkish prime ninister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets thousands of supporters at Istanbul airport after returning on Friday from a trip to Africa. Kayhan Ozer / Anadolou / EPA
The Turkish prime ninister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets thousands of supporters at Istanbul airport after returning on Friday from a trip to Africa. Kayhan Ozer / Anadolou / EPA

ISTANBUL // Supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan say the country-wide protests against the Turkish prime minister will not affect his rule and could even strengthen his hand.

Recep, 30, a tailor, dismissed the week-long demonstrations saying the charismatic leader was too strong to bow to them.

"This is like a drop in the sea," Recep said, adding that Mr Erdogan "has the votes of 35 million people".

What began last week as a small protest against government plans to build a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks on a park near Istanbul's Taksim Square, has turned into mass anti-Erdogan demonstrations in about 70 cities around the country.

But Mr Erdogan appears to be in no mood for compromise and has said the barracks will be built, confident that those who are not protesting outnumber those who are.

"These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end immediately," he told a cheering crowd of about 10,000 supporters who turned out to greet him at Istanbul airport yesterday, on his return from a four-day trip to North Africa.

"Let's crush Taksim," some shouted, according to the BBC.

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Edam think tank in Istanbul, said that even if Turkey experienced short-term instability, Mr Erdogan believed he could use it to rally his base ahead of elections next year.

"His analysis is that he will benefit from this," Mr Ulgen said.

Bulent Ozturk, 43, a member of Mr Erdogan's socially conservative support base, applauded the premier's decision to continue with the barracks project.

"It's our history," Mr Ozturk said.

The scarf and bracelet vendor disagreed with protesters' accusations that Mr Erdogan was an autocrat trying to impose religious values on society, and said recent restrictions on alcohol sale were meant "to protect the youth".

He also dismissed the arrests of about 70 media workers and members of the opposition in past years.

"We have the proof. They did something and they deserve to be arrested," Mr Ozturk said.

Mr Ulgen estimated the number of anti-government protesters around the country at "perhaps half a million".

But with the "lack of participation from conservative elements of society", the demonstrators are still in the minority, he said.

This was illustrated on Wednesday when about 90 anti-government demonstrators were met by hundreds of Mr Erdogan's supporters in Rize, a town along Turkey's Black Sea coast from where his family hails.

The demonstrators were pelted with rocks, local media reported.

Zekiye Kilic, 32, a cafe owner and an Erdogan supporter, said she sympathised with the protesters' desire to save the park. But their blocking roads around Taksim was starting to become frustrating.

"If they want to get more results they should make a political party and go to elections," Ms Kilic said.

Mr Ozturk said most Erdogan supporters wanted to "stay at home" to avoid clashes with the protesters until tensions ease. "We won't protest, they will devour themselves."

He accused the demonstrators of not appreciating Mr Erdogan's accomplishments.

Since he came to power a decade ago, Turkey has seen strong economic growth, reined in its powerful military - a source of political instability in the country - and elevated itself to a key regional player.

In 2011 elections, about 50 per cent of Turkey's 75 million population voted for Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Mr Ozturk, who performed his mandatory military service in south-east Turkey during the 1990s, bloody years for the country's decades-long Kurdish insurgency, said it was no coincidence the demonstrations broke out as Mr Erdogan negotiated to end the conflict, he said.

"Whenever things start going well for Turkey there are people who don't want that. Powers want to prevent the peace process," he said.

But it is not only protesters who disagree with Mr Erdogan's policies. A Turkish policeman in his mid-40s admitted sympathising with the demonstrations, but said he would not join them.

From a town outside Istanbul, he had been in the city by chance and went to see the demonstrations.

The overturned and burned police cars in Taksim disturbed him, along with the police being blamed for excessive force. "The fault is attributed to them when they are only following orders."

On Thursday, a police officer died after falling into an underpass while pursuing demonstrators in the southern city of Adana. Dozens of officers have reportedly been injured.

The demonstrators have also had two fatalities and thousands of injuries.

"People have exploded," the policeman said. "There's lots of them. Let's hope that someone comes along and saves us from this."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

Updated: June 8, 2013 04:00 AM

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