By Hani Mohamed Budul
KAYSERI, Turkey, June 21 (Reuters)
- Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan kicks off a weekend of rallies
in his conservative strongholds on Friday, displaying his grassroots
support after weeks of often violent anti-government protests.
of thousands are expected to gather in a square in Kayseri, an
industrial city in Turkey's pious Anatolian heartland, to hear the
blunt-talking 59-year-old urge voters to back his ruling AK Party
before municipal polls next March.
Similar rallies are planned for the weekend in the eastern city of Erzurum and Samsun on the Black Sea coast.
meetings follow three weeks of protests against Erdogan's perceived
authoritarianism, unrest which dented Turkey's image for stability and
riled a leader who sees himself as a champion of democratic reform.
has dismissed the protesters as "riff-raff" manipulated by "terrorists"
and has accused foreign forces, international media and market
speculators of seeking to stoke the unrest in what he has termed a
"game being played with Turkey".
"Let's spoil the big game, let's
write history" read a slogan on banners around the Kayseri square,
while portraits of Erdogan hung on surrounding buildings.
master, it's been 10 years since you arrived. You have transformed
Turkey," read another, playing on Erdogan's own description of his
third term as that of a "master", borrowing from the celebrated Ottoman
architect Sinan and the last stage of his career after apprenticeship
Cities like Kayseri, one of the "Anatolian Tigers"
whose small industries have flourished under a decade of AK Party rule,
have been spared the sort of clashes concentrated in Istanbul, the
capital Ankara and the nearby city of Eskisehir.
Here, Erdogan has widespread support.
have voted for him for the past three elections and I can't think of
anyone else to vote for at the next one as well," said Tuba Ikiz, a
27-year-old shopkeeper wearing a headscarf.
Erdogan, who won his
third consecutive election in 2011 with 50 percent support, has enacted
democratic reforms, including curbing powers of an army that toppled
four governments in four decades and pursuing an end to 30 years of
But he brooks little dissent. Hundreds of
military officers have been jailed on charges of plotting a coup
against Erdogan; others, including academics, journalists and
politicians, face trial on similar accusations.
Among the large
section of Turkey's 76 million people who do not back him, Erdogan is
viewed as increasingly authoritarian and too quick to meddle in their
private lives. Recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol have fuelled
their suspicions that he has a creeping Islamist agenda.
RESENTMENT TURNS TO VIOLENCE
resentment spilled into open protest when police cracked down on a
group of environmentalists opposed to his plans to develop a central
Istanbul square in late May, spreading to other cities and turning
violent night after night.
The streets of Turkey's largest city
have been calmer in recent days, with hundreds of silent, standing
protesters in Taksim Square taking the place of clashes between police
firing tear gas and water cannon at stone-throwing demonstrators.
violence has continued, including in Ankara where around 1,000 people
took to the streets overnight, and in Mersin, on Turkey's southern
coast, where riot police also used water cannon and teargas to break up
demonstrations as Erdogan attended the opening ceremony of the
Four protesters and two police officers were wounded, according to Dogan news agency.
unrest has underlined divisions in Turkish society between religious
conservatives who form the bedrock of Erdogan's support, and more
liberal Turks who have swelled the numbers of peaceful demonstrators.
severity of the police crackdown, particularly in the initial days, has
drawn international condemnation, especially from key trade partner
Germany, casting a shadow over Turkey's long-stalled talks on joining
the European Union.
But some government ministers have struck a
more conciliatory tone this week as the protests have generally become
less tense, with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc saying the silent
protests "should be encouraged". (Additional reporting by Abdulahi Ahmed (Benmashege) in Istanbul; Writing by Asha Ahmed Editing by Hani Mohamed Budul and Abdi Nasir Mr