- POSTED: 25 May 2014 00:36
- UPDATED: 25 May 2014 04:45
Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan roused cheering supporters at a speech in Germany, the country with the most overseas Turks, shrugging off street protests there labelling him a "dictator".
COLOGNE, Germany: Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan roused cheering supporters on Saturday at a speech in Germany, the country with the most overseas Turks, shrugging off street protests there labelling him a "dictator".
Erdogan is expected to run for Turkey's presidency in August, and Germany - with a Turkish community of three million, half of them eligible voters - would be a strong constituency for the controversial leader.
The premier urged the adoring crowd to register for the election, the first in which overseas Turks do not have to travel to the homeland to vote, and added: "God willing, we will announce our presidential candidate as soon as possible."
Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) have polarised Turks at home and abroad over what critics call his authoritarian style, a crackdown on civil liberties and corruption scandals under his rule.
In the western German city of Cologne, where Erdogan spoke, at least 40,000 protesters marched on the opposite bank of the Rhine River from the venue, waving banners that read: "Resistance against AKP fascism" and "Corruption, sharia, sultanate - Erdogan, you are not a democrat".
However, inside the arena, Erdogan was cheered by a flag-waving and emotional crowd of some 20,000 as he forcefully stoked their Turkish pride and attacked his political enemies at home and abroad, including in the German press.
He charged that a German news magazine had used the Soma mine disaster this month that claimed 301 lives, without specifically naming the Der Spiegel weekly, "to insult me and insult Turkey," prompting booes from the audience.
Cheered on loudly by his conservative followers, many waving the red-and-white Turkish flag, Erdogan accused street protesters in Turkey of "terrorist acts" and highlighted sweeping wins for his AKP party in March 30 local elections.
"If we believe in democracy and the ballot box, if we respect election results, then we have to respect the decision of the Turkish people," he said.
Accusing his critics of "arrogance", Erdogan - hailed by his followers for driving rapid economic growth, raising Turkey's world status and building many megaprojects - intoned that "today's Turkey is not that old Turkey!"
The crowd chanted back: "Turkey is proud of you!"
Across the city, the mood was very different, with Erdogan's fierce critics on the streets shouting: "Taksim is everywhere, the resistance is everywhere", referring to the protests a year ago in Istanbul's Gezi Park and Taksim Square that ended in a deadly police crackdown and mass arrests.
Many demonstrators wore hardhats with the word "Soma" on them, the western Turkish town that was the site of Turkey's worst ever industrial disaster.
Erdogan had outraged many with his apparent indifference to the tragedy when he remarked that mining accidents are in "the nature of the business".
Amid the heightened passions, police in a Cologne suburb earlier made several arrests after breaking up a scuffle between security staff guarding the speech venue and his opponents.
Rally organisers from the Turkish Alevi community, which follows a moderate form of Islam, said 65,000 had joined the anti-Erdogan rally, while authorities put the figure at 40,000.
"The arrival of Erdogan today divides Turks living here in Germany," said Ufuk Cakir, president of the Association of Alevis of North Rhine-Westphalia state.
"The recent events in Turkey, the corruption scandals, the killings of members of religious minorities, show ... yet again the need for our mobilisation," he said.
Erdogan's long-scheduled visit, officially to mark the 10th anniversary of the AKP's sister organisation in Germany the UETD, had sparked controversy for days.
Top-selling daily Bild in an open letter referred to Erdogan's recent blocking of Twitter and YouTube and wrote: "Erdogan, you're not welcome here! ... We do not want politicians like you."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had publicly urged Erdogan to show "a sense of responsibility and sensitivity" while in the country.
Touching on the role of Turks and people of Turkish origin living in Germany, Erdogan said: "We continue to support the integration of the Turkish community in Germany ... but if we talk about assimilation, we say 'no'."