Turkey's prime minister rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters Sunday as riot police battled anti-government protesters in neighborhoods across Istanbul and the capital of Ankara.
"This country isn't just any country, you can't hold a rally wherever you wish," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. "You can do that where it is allowed."
Tear gas hung in the air in many central districts as armored police trucks used water cannon to try to disperse angry crowds intent on reaching Istanbul's Taksim Square and recapturing Gezi Park, where police forcefully evicted demonstrators Saturday evening.
As protesters traded rocks for tear gas and plastic bullets while chanting anti-government slogans, a crowd numbering more than 100,000 massed at a parade ground about six miles west of Istanbul's center to hear Erdogan speak.
"These hundreds of thousands of people are not the ones who have burned and destroyed, these hundreds of thousands of people are not traitors like those who throw Molotov cocktails at my people," Erdogan proclaimed to thunderous applause.
More than 100 people are believed to have been detained during Saturday night's demonstrations in the areas of Taksim, the main focus of the protests, and the nearby districts of Harbiye and Mecidiyekoy.
Senior figures in Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party have warned that anyone who defies a ban on the demonstrations would be considered a terrorist and treated accordingly.
"From now on the state will unfortunately have to consider everyone who remains there a supporter or member of a terror organization," Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bagis said late Saturday. "The protests from now on will play into the hands of some separatist organizations that want to break the peace and prioritize vandalism and terrorism."
Many demonstrators on the ground reject being labeled as extremists. Baris Uyar, 35, an electronic engineer, said he'd been demonstrating for more than two weeks.
"I don't know, of 10,000 people, there might be one person throwing a stone, but the police were throwing tear gas at those thousands of people," he said.
Elected in 2002, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has presided over a decade of economic and political prosperity and embarked on far-reaching democratic reforms that eliminated the political influence of Turkey's once all-powerful military.
Erdogan's legacy has been threatened by recent violent unrest when police clashed with anti-government protesters, who claim the prime minister has become autocratic and doesn't respect minority opinions.
At least four people — including a policeman — have died, according to Amnesty International. The Turkish Medical Association estimates more than 7,500 have been injured and on Sunday called on the government "to stop the barbaric violence immediately."
But at the Kazlicesme parade ground in a western suburb of Istanbul, the violence seemed a world away. Scores of public buses commandeered for the rally, some with posters of Erdogan draped across the front, shuttled thousands of party faithful to the rally. Ferries running at capacity used a service dock as throngs poured in to hear the prime minister speak for more than two hours.
The prime minister's international standing has suffered with criticism of his police tactics coming under fire from the White House and European Union. Erdogan has blasted back, saying Saturday that international forces want to stunt Turkey's growth and suggesting there was a plot by foreign media to slander the country as a whole.
"These dark circles will never be able to succeed in their attempt to destabilize this country," Erdogan said. "One thing they did not count on was the determination of its people."
At the rally, foreign journalists were met with suspicion by AK Party supporters who said international media has exaggerated claims of police violence and been too sympathetic toward protesters. None of the supporters who talked with USA TODAY would give their last names and only agreed to speak reluctantly.
Guney, a 23-year-old student, said he thought the police had acted reasonably toward protesters in Taksim Square, which he said contained violent extremists.
"I wouldn't throw stones at my police, that's not right," he said. "Foreign press said Erdogan is dictator, but that's not true."
Cuneyt, a 40-year-old manager of a company, said he liked Erdogan's economic policies but not necessarily his Islamist credentials.
"For me, the most important thing is the economy, he's pushing Turkey forward," he said. "Nobody can stop him — nobody can stop Turkey."
Analysts agree that even as Erdogan's comes under criticism abroad he's plenty of boosters — as evidenced at the parade ground — to fall back on.
"Prime Minister Erdogan still has a big enough support base to carry him through the local elections and the presidential elections," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, an Ankara-based political analyst with the German Marshall Fund.
But Unluhisarcikli warns that Erdogan's polarizing rhetoric and belligerent attitude toward critics may jeopardize Turkey's standing as a democratic ally.
"The level of polarization in Turkey is now so high that Turkey is turning into a house divided against itself," he said. "It remains to be seen if Turkey can remain as a regional power."
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based researcher with the Silk Road Studies Program at John Hopkins University, says Erdogan's legacy as an economic reformer is positive and for this reason many voters remain loyal.
"A lot of them voted for AK Party last time because of the economy and they were probably right," he said.
The flipside, Jenkins says, is that Erdogan's polarizing rhetoric continues to raise tensions. Either the unrest will continue — and damage Turkey's economy — or the government will use force to crush dissent along with Turkey's democratic credentials.
"This appears to be a man so intoxicated with power that he's lost all grasp of reality and doesn't seem to realize how much damage his ego is doing to an entire country."