ISTANBUL — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Istanbul today in May Day rallies, confronting riot police officers to protest, lashing out against a government mired in a corruption scandal and accused of imposing a creeping authoritarianism in Turkey.
Police fired tear gas, used water cannons and shut down main streets to disperse hundreds of protesters seeking to challenge a government ban on May Day celebrations in Taksim Square, also the scene of anti-government protests last summer against the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
More than 140 people were detained and 90 people, including 19 police officers, were injured in clashes that continued in the main and back streets of central Istanbul until early afternoon, the Istanbul governor’s office said in a statement.
May Day has historically been a lightning rod for violence in Turkey as people have used the occasion to convey their grievances. May 1 was declared a national holiday in 2009.
May Day demonstrations also took place in parts of Asia, including Hong Kong and Seoul, where anger following a recent ferry sinking in South Korea was expected to give the protests particular resonance. Thousands of Russian workers gathered in Red Square in Moscow in a show of the patriotism that has surged following events in Ukraine.
In Turkey, anger against Erdogan has grown in recent months as a corruption scandal has plunged his government into crisis and challenged the position of the prime minister, who has held power for more than a decade. In recent weeks, Erdogan has infuriated the country’s secular, liberal class by seeking to ban Twitter and clamping down on social media. Critics have also accused him of abusing his power by purging police officials and judges in an apparent attempt to undermine a corruption investigation that has implicated key allies. However, results of local elections in March showed that the corruption scandal has done little to erode Erdogan’s popularity among his supporters.
The protests today were some of the largest since mass demonstrations across Turkey last June, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated against Erdogan’s government.
To quell the latest protests, nearly 40,000 police were mobilized in Istanbul, according to law enforcement officials, and the government shut down bus and ferry lines and blocked roads leading to Taksim Square. But several unions and civic groups defied the restrictions, claiming the ban was illegal.
Hurriyet, a leading newspaper, reported that a man intent on joining the May Day protests had tried to hijack an airplane going from Nicosia, Cyprus, to Ankara, Turkey, today, locking himself in the plane’s bathroom and threatening to detonate a bomb if the flight wasn’t diverted to Istanbul. The newspaper said the flight landed in Ankara, where the police arrested a 50-year-old man.
In central Istanbul, protesters built barricades on small streets leading into Taksim Square and used slingshots to stone the police, who responded with tear gas and water-cannon blasts from armored anti-riot vehicles. Young men wearing gas masks and hard hats responded by throwing tear gas canisters back at the police lines, chanting “resistance!”
By midmorning, protesters, including the elderly and women, were struggling to cope with smoke billowing in the air. Some demonstrators used gas masks, surgical masks and construction goggles to protect themselves against the measures employed by the security forces, who have been criticized for what has been called a disproportionate use of tear gas and water cannons against protesters since last summer.
“This is fascism, this is Erdogan’s obsession about power, nothing else,” said Funda Keles, director of a medical workers’ labor group, as she treated protesters.
Union members called on demonstrators to form a human wall to push through the police forces. “Everywhere Taksim, everywhere May 1!” they chanted as they marched toward the police lines. “Today our mission is to get to the square. If we run from the gas then we’ll never get there and we would have come here for nothing,” said Can Savas, 24, a student.
“We insist because it is our legal right to demonstrate and there is no reasonable explanation or legal pretext about this restriction,” said Umar Karatepe, a spokesman for the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, which was leading the labor unions seeking to stage the protest in Taksim Square.
Police seized eight homemade explosives, a large number of firebombs, slingshots, marbles, banners, hard hats as well as surgical masks and liquids meant to soothe the effects of tear gas in the back streets of Taksim, the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency reported.
Taksim Square carries important resonance in Turkey as a place of protest. In 1977, at least 35 people were killed in May Day celebrations when gunmen opened fire on protesters. In 1980, the military government declared May Day celebrations illegal in the square. In 2010, Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party reopened the square for celebrations, but then closed it last year during May Day, citing construction and safety concerns.
The initial spur for the demonstrations in June 2013 was a plan to replace a well-loved park near Taksim Square with a shopping mall project inspired by an Ottoman-style army barracks. But the protests also reflected widespread disenchantment with the perceived authoritarianism of the government, which nevertheless remains popular with its core conservative constituency.