Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday rejected talk of a "Turkish Spring", shrugging off mass protests against his Islamic-rooted government as medics reported the first death in four days of violence.
The clashes claimed their first victim on Sunday when a car ploughed into demonstrators occupying a highway in Istanbul, killing left-wing activist Mehmet Ayvalitas, the Union of Turkish Doctors said.
In Ankara, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing protesters, after a string of similar clashes in scores of cities across Turkey since Friday.
Erdogan, who went ahead with an official visit to Morocco despite facing the biggest challenge against his decade-long rule, has vowed to "stand firm" against the protests. He dismissed the demonstrators as "vandals", rejecting talk of an uprising and stressing that he was democratically elected.
"Was there a multiparty system in the Arab Spring countries?" Erdogan said in televised comments yesterday.
His own tenure in office, with the economic and political reforms it has brought, was itself the "Turkish Spring", he said. "Those in foreign media who talk about a Turkish Spring, we are already going through Turkish Spring, we have been living in it, and those who want to turn it into winter will not succeed."
Erdogan has dismissed the protests as the work of secularist enemies who were never reconciled to the mandate of his AK party, which has roots in Islamist parties banned in the past but also embraces centre-right and nationalist elements. The AK party has won three straight elections and overseen an economic boom, increasing Turkey's influence in the region.
"This is a protest organised by extremist elements," Erdogan said. "We will not give away anything to those who live arm in arm with terrorism.
"Many things have happened in this country - they've hanged, they've poisoned, but we will walk towards the future with determination and through holding onto our values," he added, alluding to Turkey's murky past of military coups.
The unrest began as an outcry against plans to redevelop Istanbul's Gezi Park, but a tough police response grew into wider anti-government rallies, with protesters accusing Erdogan of seeking to impose conservative Islamic reforms on secular Turkey.
"We have had enough of the way Erdogan understands democracy and the way he wants to dictate his rules," said Ozgur Aksoy, a young engineer demonstrating in Gezi Park, near Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests. "It's not only about the park here, it is about everything else in the last 10 years. People are angry, very angry."
Rights groups and doctors say more than 1,000 people have been injured in clashes in Istanbul and 700 in Ankara. The government's last estimate on Sunday put the figure at 58 civilians and 115 security forces, with clashes in 67 cities. It also said more than 1,700 had been arrested across the country, though many have since been released.
US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern at "reports of excessive use of force" by Turkish police and urged all sides to avoid "provocations or violence".
President Abdullah Gul, an ally of Erdogan, called for calm and promised protesters that their voice had been heard, urging an end to the disturbances.
"I am calling on all my citizens to abide by the rules, and state their objections and views in a peaceful way, as they have already done," he said.
As demonstrators carrying flags and banners continued to occupy Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square, where the protest first erupted last week, some 3,000 demonstrators rallied outside the Istanbul offices of Dogus Holding, a leading media group, to criticise the Turkish media coverage of the protests. They accused mainstream media outlets of failing to properly cover the unrest, saying they were being cowed by the government.
As clashes flared at the weekend, some prime-time television stations aired penguin documentaries and cooking shows instead of reporting on the nationwide protests.
Erdogan himself has lashed out at Twitter, used by many of the protesters, accusing the online messaging service of spreading "lies".
"Society gets terrorised this way," he told the Haberturk television channel on Sunday, citing false tweets about attacks against protesters and fatalities.
Erdogan's party is traditionally backed by conservative Islamic politicians and voters in Turkey, a secular state peopled mostly by Muslims. It has won three successive parliamentary elections, but opponents have expressed mounting concern that the country is moving towards conservative Islam.
Many of the protesters in recent days have called for Erdogan to step down, with some chanting: "Dictator, resign! … We will resist until we win."
"This is a movement which is a result of growing frustration and disappointment among secular segments of society who could not influence politics over the last decade," said Sinan Ulgen, a scholar at the think tank Carnegie Europe.
"This is an unprecedented, abrupt and unplanned public movement that has not been manipulated by any political party. It is a big surprise."
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan has passed contested reforms on religious education and a recent law curbing the sale of alcohol. In 2004, he backed down on a proposed adultery law.
Additional reporting by Reuters