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Diverse Turkey protesters vent anger, little agreement on alternative

By Ayla Jean Yackley and Alexandra Hudson

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Read the scribbled messages stuck to the vandalized shell of a car in Taksim Square and a picture emerges of the sheer breadth of frustration being vented in Turkey's fiercest anti-government protests for decades.

From gay rights to religious tolerance, abortion to freedom of the press, what began as a protest over the redevelopment of a leafy Istanbul park has surged into a tide of defiance against the perceived authoritarianism of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

The diversity of Erdogan's opponents, who have staged an unprecedented six days of protest in cities across the country, is also their weakness: no clear leader has emerged, and though they profess a shared yearning for greater liberties, they present little in the way of a cohesive political front.

"No one wants to own this protest. They're afraid," said Mennan Evren, a 60-year old leftist who was twice jailed during political violence of the 1970s when left-wing gangs clashed with right-wing ultra-nationalists.

"This is largely a rally by secularists ... It's an awkward coalition and it would have trouble sticking together after the protests to form any kind of political group that could contest the AK Party in an election."

The car, tipped on its side, has become an impromptu "wishing tree" - onto which Turks traditionally tie notes and ribbons bearing their wishes - in the centre of Taksim Square, where tens of thousands of people have gathered for the past six days in what has become an atmosphere of festive defiance.

"Tayyip, may the minarets you want to build pierce you," read one message, referring to a mosque being touted by Erdogan as part of the Taksim redevelopment plans.

"The ayran has gone to Tayyip's head," said another, referring to the non-alcoholic yoghurt he recently declared the national drink, infuriating lovers of the aniseed spirit raki, choice tipple of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan's Islamist-inspired campaign against alcohol is one of the policies that anger secularists. But protesters also showed respect for Islam, distributing traditional bread rings around Taksim on Wednesday to mark a holy Muslim day. Organizers asked them not to drink alcohol out of respect and said prayers would be led by an association of anti-capitalist Muslims.

Nationalists waving Turkish flags bearing the image of Ataturk, founder of the modern secular republic, have chanted and danced alongside activists from the Kurdish minority in a rare a show of solidarity.

Soccer fans from Istanbul's three fiercely antagonistic clubs Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce have marched arm-in-arm under the slogan "Istanbul United".

"There are a lot of different groups represented here, doctors, lawyers, gays, Kurds. Other than a few minor confrontations, everyone is working together," said Bahadir Soylemez, 21, a philosophy student at Istanbul University.

"We may not agree with each other but we all want the same end result."

SILENT MAJORITY?

Erdogan's AK Party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive elections and holds around two thirds of the seats in parliament.

Opposition parties have been reluctant to clamber to the forefront of the outpouring of anti-government sentiment.

The main opposition CHP urged its supporters not to take party flags to the early protests. The pro-Kurdish BDP, one of whose MPs helped organize the initial demonstration against trees being torn down in Taksim Square, has only come out in clear support of the wider protests in the past few days.

The jailing of hundreds of military officers on charges of plotting against Erdogan and the trial of suspected members of "Ergenekon", an alleged underground network of secular arch-nationalists, are seen by his opponents as evidence of his readiness to relentlessly pursue his foes.

"It used to be that you spent a couple of years in prison for political activities. But with the Ergenekon trials, people have been rotting in jail for years without a conviction. That has tempered things," said Evren, the 60-year-old leftist activist.

Middle-class suburbs of Istanbul and Ankara have rattled and flickered at night to the din of residents banging pots and pans and switching on and off their lights in support. Businessmen have been among the protesters, swapping suits for cargo pants and bandanas, at least outside office hours.

"We all have wealth, as well as education and a network. Let's use our leadership skills," said one business school graduate in an online forum.

"I don't want to give my daughter away as a fanatic's fourth wife," he said, reflecting secularist fears about a creeping sense of Islamisation.

But in the lower middle-class Tophane neighborhood near Taksim, a conservative bastion in a bohemian part of the city, the atmosphere is less euphoric, more phlegmatic.

"The government is very strong, it won't be harmed by this. We're all freer and better off under Erdogan," said Halil Yesildal, 35, among a group of men seated smoking cigarettes and drinking tea outside a coffee shop.

"He fixed our mosques that fell into disrepair. He serves Muslims, who make up 99.9 percent of the population, and Turkey is still a secular country, and it will stay that way."

(Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Peter Graff)

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