By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's most violent riots in decades may have been started by the destruction of a small Istanbul park, but they have exploded in a show of defiance at what many see as the creeping authoritarianism of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
In power for more than a decade, Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has increased its share of the vote in each of the past three elections, ushered in unprecedented political stability and overseen some of the fastest economic growth in Europe.
Now in his last term as prime minister, Erdogan is trying to leave his stamp on Turkey by recasting foreign policy, overhauling the constitution and even transforming the ancient Istanbul skyline.
But some, including former supporters, accuse him of growing increasingly authoritarian, muzzling the media, tightening his AK party's grip on state institutions and putting religion at the centre of politics in violation of Turkey's secular constitution.
"If it were up to the prime minister, I would be wearing a head scarf," said Tugba Bitiktas, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate, before she joined anti-government protests in central Istanbul late on Saturday.
"All this government worries about is rewarding its own. Those with a different voice are marginalized. That's what I'm protesting," she said, before donning swimming goggles and a surgical mask to stave off the effects of tear gas.
Bitiktas was one of tens of thousands protesting in Istanbul, where more than 1,000 people were hurt in three days of clashes with riot police. Similar protests were staged in the capital Ankara and in cities across the country.
Erdogan accused the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) of stoking the demonstrations, while other government officials warned the unrest was a plot to set the ground for a military intervention, as has occurred in the past.
But the protesters come from a range of political backgrounds, from environmentalists to nationalists and the hard left-wing.
The ferocity of the protests must have jolted Erdogan, whose party has won the biggest share of Turkish votes in decades and is now said to have his sights on the presidency before his self-imposed three-term limit expires in 2015.
The 59-year-old former Istanbul mayor is campaigning for constitutional change that would give executive powers to the largely ceremonial presidency.
Erdogan has tackled some of Turkey's thorniest problems, including a major peace initiative this year to end a 28-year war with Kurdish militants. He is an important U.S. partner in efforts to end the civil war in Syria, though opinion polls show government policy towards Turkey's neighbor is unpopular.
FROM FOUR TO THOUSANDS
The centre of the protests is Istanbul's Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park, a green patch in Europe's fastest-growing city which dedicates just 1.5 percent of its land to public parks, according to the World Cities Culture Report.
A group of four protesters trying to stop a handful of trees from being cut down for a road-expansion project mushroomed last week into thousands of people, who refashioned Gezi into a festival campsite with concerts, speeches and yoga sessions.
They oppose a plan to pedestrianise Taksim and raze Gezi Park to rebuild a 19th Century Ottoman barracks that once marked the outer limits of the city. In its new form, Erdogan has said the ground floor of the replica barracks could serve as shopping centre or museum, topped with luxury flats.
"When citizens are not consulted about even a park, then that country is not democratic," said Betul Tanbay, professor at Bosphorus University and member of the Taksim Platform that has campaigned for more than year for a project based on consensus.
"This has now gone beyond tunnels and parks into a wider movement. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among a large segment of people," she said.
Taksim is just one of the government's construction projects that include the world's biggest airport, a $3 billion third bridge across the Bosphorus and a $10 billion shipping canal that would turn half of Istanbul into an island.
Aggrandising projects, Erdogan's critics say, distract from more pressing issues in the nation of 76 million.
HISTORY OF PROTEST
Taksim has a particular resonance. While other Istanbul squares embody the grandeur of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Taksim pays homage to the secular ideals of the republic founded in 1923 after the empire collapsed. More recently, the square was the site of a 1977 massacre of up to 40 leftists during a May Day rally.
"Taksim carries enormous significance for different circles ... To bulldoze Taksim without any real social consensus is to harm an important public space not just for Istanbul, but for all of Turkey," said Eyup Muhcu, head of the Chamber of Architects, in an interview before the protests.
Celebrations were banned in Taksim for decades until Erdogan allowed them again in 2010, only to shut the square this May 1 because of the construction, prompting weeks of small protests that snowballed towards this weekend's riots.
As the protests gathered steam, Erdogan appeared to dig in, ignoring an interim Istanbul court ruling on Friday that blocked work on the barracks project as judges sought more testimony.
He went on to announce the demolition of an iconic Taksim auditorium dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, and the erection of a mosque.
Efforts to build a mosque at Taksim have been floated for at least 40 years but never gained enough support. "I don't need the permission of the (opposition), and I don't need it from a few looters. The voters already gave me permission for this," Erdogan said.
Building a mosque in Taksim would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Turkey's military, self-appointed guardians of secularism, kept a short rein on civilian governments, staging three outright coups and forcing a fourth government to resign.
With popular backing, Erdogan's government has tamed the army over the past decade, mainly through legal cases that jailed dozens of top brass for their alleged roles in plots against Erdogan and his predecessors.
That has allowed him to express more comfortably his religious sentiments, which are widely reflected in Turkey.
For much of the first half of his term in office, Erdogan focused on political reforms that aimed to bring Turkey in line with European Union political criteria. Kurdish cultural rights were granted, religious minorities enjoyed greater freedoms and the overall public discourse was expanded.
Despite the unrest of recent days, Erdogan remains Turkey's most popular politician, with no obvious rival either within the ruling party or the opposition.
"Turkish secularism was too rigid to create harmony in society where you have a fairly observant religious population," said Mustafa Akyol, the author of "Islam Without Extremes".
"Secularists now fear Erdogan wants to reverse things, since he faces no challenges," he said.
Since 2008, thousands of government opponents from across the political spectrum have been jailed, including university students, academics, lawyers, Kurdish activists, military officers and the alleged leaders of ultra-nationalist gangs.
"An administration that has no opposition for balance and no free media to monitor it can easily spin out of control," said Kadri Gursel, a columnist for Milliyet newspaper and chairman of the International Press Institute's Turkish committee.
"The Turkish experiment has now answered the question of whether moderate Islam and democracy are compatible without checks and balances."
Legislation passed last month that restricts alcohol sales raises fears over other areas of private life the government may seek to regulate, particularly after Erdogan acknowledged the law was based on the tenets of Islam.
Perhaps conscious of the concerns, he also said it was his constitutional duty to protect the health of young Turks.
Other issues, including two high-profile blasphemy cases, in which a well-known pianist and writer were separately given prison sentences for comments on Twitter, show the government is remodeling Turkey, Gursel said. "Turkey isn't just becoming more religious. It's being made more religious," he said.
A colorful demonstration in the capital Ankara last month, when 200 people kissed to protest a morality campaign, ended in bloodshed when a group of Islamists carrying knives attacked protesters, stabbing one person, Hurriyet newspaper reported.
Over his tenure, Erdogan, who served a brief prison sentence for reading a poem deemed Islamic when he was mayor in the 1990s, has spoken more openly of raising a religious generation.
He has tried to restrict women's access to abortions to encourage larger families and lifted curbs on the public expression of religion, such as once-strict limits on wearing the Islamic-style headscarf.
At the protest on Saturday, Metin, a 30-year-old doctor who described himself as a devout Muslim, said he had lost his faith in Erdogan over the years.
"I say my prayers, and I fast, and I considered voting for Erdogan in the past because I believed he would help the oppressed, since he had been," Metin said, declining to give his last name because he feared reprisals at work.
"But now that he has the power, Erdogan has become the oppressor. He exploits our religious feelings for profit. He has become arrogant, and that is a sin."
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and David Stamp)