ISTANBUL — In a scene reminiscent of the Arab Spring, thousands of people flooded Istanbul’s main square Saturday after a crackdown on an anti-government protest turned city streets into a battlefield clouded by tear gas.
Though Prime Minister Recep Erdogan offered some concessions to demonstrators, he remained largely defiant in the face of the biggest popular challenge to his power in a decade in office, insisting the protests are undemocratic and illegitimate.
Public anger has flared among urban and secular Turks after police violently broke up an anti-development sit-in in the landmark Taksim Square, with protests spreading to dozens of other cities as demonstrators denounced what they see as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style.
As the furious protests entered its second day, police fired tear gas and turned on water cannons at angry demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks and bottles on their march toward Taksim. In an area normally abuzz with tourists, stores were shuttered and protesters fled into luxury hotels for shelter. There were hundreds of arrests and injured.
Turkish authorities later removed barricades and allowed thousands of demonstrators into the square in an effort to calm tension.
Sounding defiant even as he bowed to protesters and pulled back police, Erdogan promised to stick to the government’s redevelopment plans, which protesters fear will remove one of the few green spaces in the sprawling city.
He called the protesters a “minority” that was trying to forcefully impose demands and challenged the opposition that he could easily summon a million people for a government rally.
“I am not claiming that a government that has received the majority of the votes has limitless powers ... and can do whatever it wants,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. “Just as the majority cannot impose its will on the minority, the minority cannot impose its will on the majority.”
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has boosted economic growth and raised its international profile, taking a central role in post-Arab Spring politics in the region. Though widely supported by rural and conservative religious Muslims, he remains a divisive figure in mainly secular circles and is criticized for his often abrasive style.