Striking workers take to the streets in Turkey’s leaderless protest movement

Two major trade unions add weight to protests against prime minister Erdogan’s rule

A dancer holding a gas mask performs in Istanbul’s Taksim Square yesterday as tens of thousands of Turks joined protests against prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule. Photograph: AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis

A dancer holding a gas mask performs in Istanbul’s Taksim Square yesterday as tens of thousands of Turks joined protests against prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule. Photograph: AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis

 

Thousands of striking workers took to the streets of Turkey’s cities yesterday, adding heft to a leaderless protest movement calling for prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign after nearly a week of violent clashes.

Two major trade union groupings, KESK and DISK, began two-day strikes Tuesday in solidarity with the rallies that have mushroomed across Turkey following brutal police tactics in Istanbul.

Their members, including teachers, doctors, and bank and airline workers, marched on Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square yesterday, drawing cheers and applause from protesters there and in nearby Gezi Park. The initial protests last week were sparked by anger over a pre-dawn police raid on the park to dislodge activists camping out in an attempt to stop the area being developed into a shopping mall.

“Taksim, resist, the workers are coming!” the union members yelled yesterday as they converged on the square. Others joined in with “Tayyip Istifa! [Resign]” – a chant that drifted over Taksim throughout the day as protesters demanded the resignation of the man who dismissed them at the weekend as “extremists” and “looters.”


Three dead
According to officials, three people have died since the unrest began. The image of one of those killed, a 22-year-old from Hatay province called Abdullah Comert, is emblazoned on walls, trees and noticeboards in Taksim and Gezi Park.

Hundreds of others have been arrested. More than 20 have been detained for using social media sites such as Twitter, which many Turks had turned to for information on the protests due to what appeared to be a TV blackout. Erdogan denounced Twitter as “a menace to society” at the weekend.

The atmosphere in Taksim changes depending on the time of day. During daylight the mood is festive, with families milling with more hardened activists. Protesters hand out free food and drinks, while others sing and dance. But tensions returned here and in other major cities on Tuesday night, resulting in fresh clashes with police and more tear gas.

In an attempt to defuse the situation, Turkey’s deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc met with the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a group of academics, architects and environmentalists formed to protect Taksim Square from development.

On Tuesday Arinc, who is standing in for Erdogan while he is on an official visit to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, offered an olive branch to protesters, apologising for what he said was a “wrong and unjust” crackdown on the Gezi Park protest.

Before leaving for his four-day trip to north Africa, Erdogan had adopted a more bullish stance, boasting that his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) had a huge mandate, and that he could bring out even bigger crowds if he wanted.


Erdogan’s ‘vexing’ approach
With the protests gathering momentum, the crisis constitutes the most significant domestic challenge Erdogan has faced as prime minister.

The Taksim Solidarity Platform condemned what it said was Erdogan’s “vexing” approach and called on the government to shelve the Taksim Square redevelopment plans, ban the use of tear gas by police, and release all detained protesters. It also demanded that officials — including governors and senior police figures — responsible for the violent response to the protest be removed from office.

“The steps that the government will take from now on will define the course of the societal reaction,” said Eyup Muhcu, the head of a chamber of architects, after meeting with Arinc.