ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of secularists protesting at a banned rally in the capital on Monday against what they see as an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist government.
The scenes of chanting men and women draped in Turkish flags and carrying banners portraying the country’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk highlight a longstanding division in Turkish society between staunch secularists on the one hand and more conservative religious Turks on the other.
Although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan won a third term in power last year with 50 percent of the vote, many secular Turks fear his socially conservative AK Party has Islamist tendencies that threaten the secular republic founded by Ataturk.
“They are trying to turn us into another Iran or some kind of neo-Ottoman Empire. We are against this,” said retired 64-year-old Erdem Sevinc.
“We are here today to send a message to those who are trying to destroy the principles of this republic,” he said.
The local government in Ankara, also controlled by Erdogan’s AK Party, banned the rally citing “intelligence” it would be used for “provocation”, a move protesters said was designed to silence government opponents.
“Why have they banned this march? Because they are scared. They are scared of course,” said 68-year-old Metin Alkan, sporting a black tie emblazoned with Ataturk’s face.
“Look at us, do we look like a danger?” he said, laughing.
Waving Turkish flags several thousand people gathered outside the old parliament building in the city centre to try to march to Ataturk’s mausoleum to mark the 89th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
“Resign government! Damn you Tayyip!” the crowd chanted, referring to the prime minister.
“The day will come when the AK Party will give account to the people,” they shouted.
“We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers! Turkey is secular and will remain secular!” others shouted.
But the marchers were kept back by a barricade of riot police who began firing tear gas and water cannon into the crowd, which included children and elderly men and women, as some people tried to storm the police blockade.
Some in the crowd threw projectiles at the line of police, prompting them to fire more tear gas and water cannon. People pushed and shoved to get out of the line of fire while others were doubled up on the ground, coughing from the gas.
Several young girls were carried out of the crowd unconscious, drenched by the water cannon.
“Why are they doing this? This is really bad. We are citizens of this country, we are not enemies,” said 21-year-old computer studies student Melisa Cilli.
“They want another kind of system here, a dictatorship, with Erdogan as the dictator,” she said.
Several hours later police removed the barricades allowing the crowds to march to the mausoleum some three kilometres away.
Erdogan was first elected a decade ago with an overwhelming majority and has presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity, winning him admirers among Western nations keen to portray Turkey as a democratic example in a troubled region.
But that success story has been undermined by growing criticism of the authoritarian style of his rule.
Hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists are in jail on charges of plotting against the government, while more than 300 army officers were convicted last month of conspiring against Erdogan almost a decade ago, and handed long jail terms.
Media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said this month that Turkey had jailed more reporters than Iran, China or Eritrea.
Secular Turks also point to increasing restrictions on alcohol and changes to the education system introduced by the AK Party as a sign the country is becoming more Islamic.
Erdogan has also forged close ties with Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) set up by Ataturk in 1924, joined the march and later criticised the police’s handling of the event.
“Those people only had Turkish flags in their hands. The state had police, tear gas, water cannon and tanks. Hey, where are you going? Are you going to war? You don’t need permission to celebrate the republic,” he said.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jon Hemming