Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Istanbul on Thursday to mark May Day, lashing out against a government mired in a corruption scandal and accused of creeping authoritarianism.
The police fired tear gas, used water cannons and shut down main streets to disperse hundreds of protesters seeking to defy a government ban on May Day celebrations in Taksim Square, the scene of antigovernment protests last summer against the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The protesters had gathered to mark May Day, which 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 were also taking place in Asia, including in Hong Kong and in Seoul, where anger following a recent ferry sinking in South Korea was expected to give the protests particular resonance. Russian workers were also expected to gather in Red Square in Moscow in a show of the patriotism that has surged following events in Ukraine.
Anger in Turkey against Mr. Erdogan has grown in recent months as a corruption scandal has plunged the government into crisis and challenged the position of the prime minister, who has held power for more than a decade. In recent weeks, Mr. Erdogan has infuriated the country’s secular, liberal class by banning 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 ensnared him and several key allies.
The protests, to mark International Workers’ Day, follow mass demonstrations across Turkey last June, when tens of thousands of people protested against Mr. Erdogan’s government.
To quell the latest protests, the government shut down bus and ferry lines and blocked roads leading to Taksim Square. But several unions and civic groups defied the restrictions on Thursday, claiming the ban was illegal.
In central Istanbul, protesters built barricades on small streets leading into Taksim Square and used slingshots to launch stones at the police, who responded with tear gas and periodically fired water cannons from armored antiriot 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 billowing smoke 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.
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“We insist because it is our legal right to demonstrate and there is no reasonable explanation or legal pretext about this restriction,” said Umut Karatepe, a spokesman for the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, which is leading the labor unions seeking to stage a protest in Taksim.
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 at protesters. In 1980, the military government declared May Day celebrations illegal in the square. In 2010, Mr. 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 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.