By Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL, June 3 (Reuters) - If there is a "Turkish Spring" to rival the pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan believes that he, and not protesters in Istanbul, is leading it.
Erdogan has used his blustering, assertive style and a common touch that courts the conservative Islamic heartland to dominate Turkish politics like no leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern secular republic in 1923.
But four days of the fiercest anti-government protests for years have shocked even Erdogan loyalists, and raised questions over whether an authoritarian personal style now threatens democratic reforms from the early days of his decade in power. Opposition that has had little voice in an Erdogan-dominated parliament appears to be spilling now onto the streets.
Erdogan is the son of a poor sea captain hardened by a childhood in Istanbul's rough Kasimpasa district. A pious youth with soccer-playing ambitions, he was known wryly to allies as 'Imam Beckenbauer' - an allusion to German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer.
He talks bluntly, dismissing the protesters as "looters", and leaving confidently on Monday for a visit to North Africa.
The gatherings of demonstrators on Istanbul's Taksim Square have drawn loose comparisons with protests on Cairo's Tahrir Square that toppled Hosni Mubarak; but no, said Erdogan.
"Those in the foreign media who talk about a 'Turkish Spring', we are already going through a 'Turkish Spring', we have been living in it," he told reporters. "Those who want to turn it into winter will not succeed."
The reference was more than mere rhetoric.
"SERVANT OF THE NATION"
Erdogan sees his crowning achievement as taming anti-democratic forces that had long held Turkey back, in particular a staunchly secular army that intervened to topple governments four times in the second half of the 20th Century.
He has rooted out a "deep state" of hardline secularists ensconced in the security services, judiciary and civil service and resisting democratic reform.
Hundreds of military officers have been jailed on charges of plotting against Erdogan, while others including academics, journalists and politicians face trial on similar accusations.
Erdogan has shown political courage not only in confronting the generals but in seeking a peace deal with Kurdish rebels unthinkable before he was elected in 2002.
Opponents, however, see in his actions a ploy to stifle opposition and subvert the secular order, an accusation he denies.
They accuse him of infiltrating his own "deep state" of Islamist activists into key areas of the state bureaucracy and bridle over his campaign against alcohol sales and his opening of state institutions to the symbol of female Islamic piety, the heascarf so disdained by Ataturk.
With a tight grip on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) he co-founded with President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan is not a leader who is used to being challenged, particularly in such a public and personal way, on the streets.
"If they call a person who is a servant of the nation a dictator, I can find nothing to tell them," he said on Sunday during the height of the unrest, with thinly concealed contempt. "I have no concern but to serve my 76 million citizens."
The four days of violence, in which riot police backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters fired tear gas and water cannon in Istanbul and Ankara, was triggered by government plans for a replica Ottoman-era barracks in Taksim Square, a characteristically grandiose project.
But it has widened into a broader show of defiance against Erdogan and the AKP, the party he created from an amalgamation of conservative religious forces, nationalists and centre-right elements. The opposition says only the prime minister himself can bring it to an end.
"The prime minister has to come out and apologise to the public," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).
The tragedy of the opposition is that it has as yet no credible leader to offer in Erdogan's place.
Erdogan's AKP, the socially conservative successor to a banned Islamist party, has won three straight elections, each time with a higher share of the vote, and taken Turkey from crisis to Europe's fastest growing economy over the past decade.
That record has helped blunt misgivings over Erdogan's intolerance of dissent, both among the party faithful and Western allies, keen to see Turkey as a stable and successful Muslim democracy in a turbulent Middle East.
"A strong, stable Turkey is essential right now for the region. It is the key player. We hope this domestic issue is settled quickly," said one regional diplomat.
Such a narrative has for years kept the international spotlight off Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies, allowing him to govern by force of personality, cementing a pro-government majority which leaves him with little need to seek consensus.
He is a fighter on the political field as he was on the soccer pitch.
"If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million," he said of the protests.
Such fiery rhetoric does little to suggest he might have been chastened by events. He is a man tempered by having served time in prison himself in the 1990s for publicly reciting a poem deemed to promote political Islam.
"I think what we've seen is more of the traditional Erdogan," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, EDAM.
"The reason he remains defiant despite having every reason to appease the situation is that this policy of polarization, of eliminating the middle ground, has served him well in the past and he believes it will continue to do so."
It also sets him at odds with President Gul, who has taken a more conciliatory tone.
In Kasimpasa, the working-class neighbourhood where Erdogan studied the Koran and played football as a boy, he still enjoys a strong following; but even loyal supporters acknowledge their patience with his authoritarian style is wearing thin.
"The demonstrators have sown the seeds of discontent. They've planted the seeds of Libya, Iraq, Syria and Egypt," said a school bus driver who gave his name as Habip.
"The prime minister had an opportunity to calms things down. He should have been conciliatory, but no. He handed politics to the hands of 14- and 15-year olds. His divisive speech grinds and sharpens the knife dividing our society." (Additional reporting by Can Sezer and Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Giles Elgood)