ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - A lone, silent vigil by a man in Istanbul inspired copycat protests on Tuesday, as police detained dozens of people across Turkey in an operation linked to three weeks of often violent demonstrations against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Overnight in Ankara, riot police used teargas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of people who had gathered in and around the government quarter of Kizilay.
But in stark contrast to the recent fierce clashes in several cities, hundreds of protesters merely stood in silence in Istanbul, inspired by a man who lit up social media by doing just that for eight hours in the city’s Taksim Square on Monday.
“I am just an ordinary citizen of this country,” Erdem Gunduz, dubbed the “Standing Man” on Twitter, told Hurriyet TV. “We want our voices to be heard.”
As dusk fell on Tuesday, hundreds followed his lead, standing quietly and facing either a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, or a phalanx of police officers keeping watch over the crowd a short distance away.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said 62 people had been detained in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul, and 23 in the capital, Ankara. The state broadcaster TRT said 13 had been held in Eskisehir.
Protests have frequently turned into clashes between police firing teargas and water cannon and masked demonstrators throwing bottles and other missiles, images that have dented Turkey’s reputation for stability in a volatile Middle East.
Western countries have expressed concern about the police’s handling of the protests against Erdogan, whose authority rests on three successive election victories, the last achieved with 50 percent support.
Critics accuse him of disregarding the half of the population who did not vote for him, and some say he has connived to subvert the secular constitution and create an order based on religious principles - something Erdogan denies.
The 59-year-old has struck a defiant tone throughout the unrest, which poses the greatest challenge to a 10-year rule marked by an economic boom and a drive to extend Turkey’s influence beyond its frontiers.
“In the face of a comprehensive and systematic movement of violence, the police displayed an unprecedented democratic stance and successfully passed the test of democracy,” he told members of his ruling AK Party in parliament.
“The police have been represented as using violence. Who used violence? All of the terrorists, the anarchists, the rioters,” he said in a speech punctuated by loud cheers.
Officials have sought to distinguish between those they consider legitimate protesters and others described variously as “riff-raff” and “terrorists”.
But Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), goaded the leader.
“The master of dictators was not even able to be an apprentice of democracy,” he told party members. “We have a prime minister who has lost his dignity.”
The unrest began as a small action by environmentalists opposed to government plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces in the centre of the teeming city of Istanbul.
But it has broadened to a protest movement against what Erdogan’s critics say is his domineering style and tendency to meddle in people’s private lives - a tendency some opponents say is driven by Erdogan’s Islamic faith.
The violence, which has abated significantly since Istanbul saw some of the worst clashes so far on Saturday, has left four people dead, including one policeman, and about 7,500 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
On Tuesday, Cem Oezdemir, the co-chair of Germany’s opposition Greens party, who is of Turkish origin, joined the international chorus of condemnation of Erdogan’s handling of the unrest.
“Erdogan will no longer be able to travel the world presenting himself as a reformer and a moderniser,” he said in an interview published in the German newspaper Die Welt. “He won’t be able to shake off the images of brutal violence.”
Erdogan, who created his AK Party in 2001 from a mix of centrists and reformers as well as conservative religious elements, pursued radical social reforms in his first years in office, broadening ethnic Kurdish rights and curbing the power of an army that had toppled four governments in four decades.
Opponents argue that recent years have seen him returning to more conservative roots, though he remains almost unchallenged in Turkish politics and has launched a risky drive to negotiate an end to a three-decade-old Kurdish rebellion.
No rival to Erdogan has emerged on the streets or in parliament, but the unrest dented investor confidence, with the lira currency hitting near-two-year lows last week and 10-year bond yields topping 8 percent. Markets have since settled close to levels before the demonstrations began.
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Jonathon Burch in Ankara, Ayla Jean Yackley and Can Sezer in Istanbul and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Robin Pomeroy