Anger at Turkish Premier boils over
TURKEY'S most violent riots in decades may have been started by the destruction of a small Istanbul park, but they have exploded in a show of defiance at what many see as the creeping authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In power for more than a decade, Mr Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has increased its share of the vote in each of the past three elections, ushered in unprecedented political stability and overseen some of the fastest economic growth in Europe.
Now in his last term as prime minister, Mr Erdogan is trying to leave his stamp on Turkey by recasting foreign policy, overhauling the Constitution and even transforming the ancient Istanbul skyline.
But some, including former supporters, accuse him of growing increasingly authoritarian, muzzling the media, tightening his party's grip on state institutions, and putting religion at the centre of politics, in violation of Turkey's secular Constitution.
"If it was up to the Prime Minister, I would be wearing a headscarf," said Ms Tugba Bitiktas, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate, before she joined anti-government protests in central Istanbul late last Saturday.
Ms Bitiktas was one of tens of thousands protesting in Istanbul, where more than 1,000 people were hurt in three days of clashes with riot police. Similar protests were staged in the capital, Ankara, and in cities across the country.
The ferocity of the protests must have jolted Mr Erdogan, whose party has won the biggest share of Turkish votes in decades, and who is now said to have his sights on the presidency before his self-imposed three-term limit expires in 2015.
The centre of the protests is Istanbul's Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park, where a small group of protesters tried to stop a handful of trees from being cut down. They oppose a plan to pedestrianise Taksim and raze Gezi Park to rebuild a 19th-century Ottoman barracks.
Mr Erdogan has said the ground floor of the replica barracks could serve as a shopping centre or museum, topped with luxury flats.
At the protest last Saturday, Dr Metin, a 30-year-old doctor who described himself as a devout Muslim, said he had lost his faith in Mr Erdogan over the years.
"Now that he has the power, Erdogan has become the oppressor. He exploits our religious feelings for profit. He has become arrogant, and that is a sin," he said.