Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday said he would consider holding a referendum on plans to redevelop an Istanbul park that have sparked nationwide protests, in his first major concession in nearly two weeks of anti-government unrest.
The gesture came as thousands gathered in the city’s Taksim Square, next to Gezi Park, for a 13th evening of demonstrations. The mood was subdued and peaceful, in stark contrast to the previous night when protesters fought running battles with riot police.
“We might put it to a referendum.... In democracies only the will of the people counts,” said Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after talks between Erdogan and protest leaders. “We think that after this gesture of goodwill people will decide to go home.”
A campaign to save Gezi Park’s trees from being razed to make way for a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks was met with a heavy-handed police response on May 31. The crackdown sparked a countrywide outpouring of anger against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Hundreds have since been camping out in Gezi Park. Police have not interfered with the tent city that has sprung up there, but on Tuesday they retook Taksim Square, the focal point of the protest movement.
Officers fired tear gas and water cannon at tens of thousands of demonstrators, some of whom hurled back fireworks and petrol bombs.
Erdogan has faced international condemnation over his handling of the crisis, which has left four dead and injured nearly 5,000 demonstrators, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
The premier has repeatedly warned that he was running out of patience with the demonstrators, but he held out on olive branch by meeting with some of the protest representatives.
The representatives, a loose coalition of environmental campaigners, did not comment on the referendum proposal after the talks. Critics say they do not speak for most of the protesters and were cherry-picked for the meeting with the premier.
Meanwhile, riot police backed by armoured water cannon trucks looked on as demonstrators gathered peacefully around a piano in Taksim Square for a live concert, sporadically chanting: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!”
Protesters’ demonstrating in the Turkish capital Ankara were once again subjected to a police crackdown with riot police firing tear gas overnight Wednesday to disperse some 2,000 people who were clustered in Tunali street, one of the central spots for mass anti-government rallies.
Earlier in the day, thousands of lawyers took to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara in protest at the brief detention of over 70 colleagues Tuesday after they objected to the police violently reclaiming Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since June 1.
While expectations were low for a quick resolution to the conflict, President Abdullah Gul said Erdogan’s meeting with demonstrators was a sign of the country’s “democratic maturity”. He added he was confident Turkey would “overcome the trouble”.
The protesters in Gezi Park were on edge late Wednesday, prompting Istanbul’s governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu to take to Twitter to reassure them that police would not enter the site.
“But how can you trust the police after last night?” asked Orhan Veli Gulenay, a 28-year-old software developer who has been sleeping in the park.
In a clear sign that police had reclaimed Taksim Square, they hung two massive Turkish flags from a nearby building as well as a large portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, whose image has also been adopted by the protesters.
Confident in his enduring popularity, Erdogan, in power since 2002, has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.
His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.
The first campaign rallies will be staged in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend and are expected to gather tens of thousands of party faithful.
Turkey, a country of 76 million at the crossroads of East and West, is a key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.
Washington said it was following Turkey’s protests “with great concern”.
“We’re troubled by any attempts to punish individuals for exercising their right to free speech,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said images of demonstrators being chased down by riot police in Istanbul were “disturbing” and sent the “wrong message” to EU nations.
Turkey has long aspired to join the EU but its bid has stalled amid concerns over its human rights record.