Turkey rules out early polls, thousands defy call to end protest

ISTANBUL Sat Jun 8, 2013 11:01pm IST

A woman sells Turkish flags, with an image of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk depicted on them, as anti-government protesters gather in Istanbul's Taksim square June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

A woman sells Turkish flags, with an image of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk depicted on them, as anti-government protesters gather in Istanbul's Taksim square June 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party on Saturday ruled out early elections as thousands of anti-government demonstrators defied his call for an immediate end to protests.

Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the Justice and Development (AK) Party founded by Erdogan just over a decade ago, said local and presidential elections would be held next year as planned, and a general election in 2015.

"The government is running like clockwork. There is nothing that necessitates early elections," he told reporters after a meeting of the party's executive committee in Istanbul.

"The world is dealing with an economic crisis and things are going well in Turkey. Elections are not held because people are marching on the streets."

A few kilometres away, tens of thousands of Turks defied Erdogan's call on Friday for an immediate end to anti-government demonstrations, massing again in the central Taksim Square, where riot police backed by helicopters and armoured vehicles first clashed with protesters a week ago.

Tourists and curious locals swelled their numbers around a makeshift protest camp in Gezi Park, a leafy corner of the square where activists have been sleeping in tents and vandalised buses, or wrapped in blankets under plane trees.

What began as a campaign against government plans to build over the park spiralled into an unprecedented display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party, leading to the worst riots in decades.

In a rare show of unity, thousands of fans from Istanbul's three main football clubs Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, who have helped organise some of the protests, marched on Taksim roaring "Tayyip resign!" and "Arm in arm against fascism!".

Police fired teargas and water cannon on protesters overnight in the working-class Gazi neighbourhood of Istanbul, which saw heavy clashes with police in the 1990s. There was similar unrest night after night earlier in the week in several cities, leaving three dead and close to 5,000 injured.

Hundreds of protesters also gathered in the centre of the capital Ankara on Saturday, which saw violent clashes earlier in the week, chanting and honking car horns.

Erdogan has given no indication of plans to clear out Taksim, around which protesters have built dozens of barricades made of ripped up paving stones, street signs, vandalised vehicles and corrugated iron, clogging part of the city centre.

Police pulled back from the square days ago.

"Let them attack. They can't stop us," a member of the Turkish Communist Party shouted through loudspeakers to a cheering crowd from on top of a white van in the square.

Taksim is lined by luxury hotels that should be doing a roaring trade as the summer season starts in one of the world's most-visited cities. But a forced eviction might trigger a repeat of the clashes seen earlier in the week.

ANGER BOILS OVER

The gatherings mark a challenge to a leader whose authority is built upon three successive election victories. Erdogan takes the protests as a personal affront.

Sources close to the AK Party speak of a sense of siege within the party leadership, with influential if disparate forces loath to break ranks publicly but still worried about the extent of Erdogan's power and his uncompromising response to the protests.

Erdogan has made little secret of his ambition to run for the presidency after his third term as prime minister comes to an end, although the AKP could also change internal rules to allow him to stand for a fourth term.

Celik said the protests had been discussed "in detail" at Saturday's party meeting, but that the question of early elections had never been on the agenda.

"A government that doesn't have people's trust cannot be permanent. We got the message of the protests and we respect that, but there's nothing to respect about people throwing stones," he said.

Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside - pointing to the AK Party's 50 percent of the vote in the last election - and has no clear rivals inside the party or out.

He has enacted many democratic reforms, taming a military that toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decade-old war.

But in recent years, critics say his style, always forceful and emotional, has become authoritarian.

Media have come under pressure, opponents have been arrested over alleged coup plots, and moves such as restrictions on alcohol sales have unsettled secular middle-class Turks who are sensitive to any encroachment of religion on their daily lives.

"These protests are partly a result of his success in economic and social transformation. There's a new generation who doesn't want to be bullied by the prime minister and who is afraid their lifestyle is in danger," said Joost Lagendijk, a former European parliamentarian and Istanbul-based academic.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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