Turkey warned on Monday it may bring in the army to help quell nationwide anti-government protests after a weekend of heavy clashes between riot police and demonstrators sent tensions soaring.
The presence of soldiers on the streets would mark a major escalation of a crisis that has raged for nearly three weeks and has posed the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government.
The announcement came as police continued to spray tear gas and water at clusters of demonstrators in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, in battles that raged with fresh intensity after the weekend eviction of protesters occupying Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the epicentre of the protest movement.
Police “will use all their powers” to end the unrest, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in a televised interview. “If this is not enough, we can even utilise the Turkish armed forces in cities.”
Turkey’s two main trade unions meanwhile began a nationwide strike against the police crackdown on Gezi Park demonstrators, a stoppage the government branded “illegal”.
The KESK and DISK trade unions, which together represent hundreds of thousands of workers, said they planned to hold demos in the late afternoon to call for the police violence to “end immediately”.
Turkey’s once all-powerful army, which staged four coups in 50 years, has stayed silent throughout the turmoil, making it the first time in the country’s modern history that it has not intervened in a major political crisis.
Observers say the pro-secular military been steadily sidelined during Erdogan’s decade in power, though some members of the gendarmerie were stationed at key points in Istanbul at the weekend to stop protesters from trying to cross the Bosphorus bridge.
At a rally of more than 100,000 supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Sunday, the premier insisted it was his “duty” to order police to storm Gezi Park after protesters defied his warnings to clear out.
“I said we were at an end. That it was unbearable. Yesterday the operation was carried out and it was cleaned up,” a combative Erdogan told a sea of cheering loyalists. “It was my duty as prime minister.”
The crisis began when a peaceful sit-in to save Gezi’s 600 trees from being razed prompted a brutal police response on May 31, spiralling into countrywide demonstrations against Erdogan.
So far four people have been killed and nearly 7,500 people injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association (TBB).
In response to Saturday’s renewed crackdown on the small park, where a festive tent city had sprung in recent weeks, thousands took to the streets in Turkey’s two main cities and engaged in running battles with police throughout the weekend.
Nearly 600 people were arrested on Sunday alone, according to the Ankara and Istanbul bar associations.
— ‘They will be held accountable’ —
Erdogan on Sunday vowed to go after those who had offered assistance to the protesters, in a nod to the luxury hotels who opened their doors to people fleeing the volleys of tear gas and jets of water dousing during the evacuation of Gezi.
“We know the ones who sheltered in their hotels those who cooperated with terror. They will be held accountable,” he said at the Istanbul rally.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of authoritarian tendencies and of forcing Islamic conservative reforms on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation of 76 million.
Erdogan, 59, has been in power since 2002. His AKP has won three elections in a row, gaining in popularity each time and taking nearly half the vote in 2011 after presiding over strong economic growth.
A survey by Metropoll, published in the Zaman daily on Monday found that the AKP would still come first if elections were held now, with 35.3 percent of the vote.
But 49.9 percent of the more than 2,800 people questioned this month felt the government was becoming more authoritarian, the report said.
It found that more than 60 percent of respondents wanted Gezi Park to remain a green space, while 23 percent favoured the government’s plan to rebuild Ottoman-era military barracks on the site.
In a bid to end the row over the park, Erdogan last week offered to suspend the redevelopment project pending a court ruling on its legality.
But the Taksim Solidarity group, seen as most representative of the protesters, rejected the olive branch, saying their movement was now more than a conservation struggle.
By Monday morning, there was a much lighter police presence near Gezi.
Police reopened the newly spruced-up Taksim Square, which borders Gezi Park, allowing in commuters and tourists, and traffic flowed freely. The park remained closed as municipal workers continued their clean-up operation.