ISTANBUL–Thousands of people on Wednesday denounced a jail sentence against the Islamist mayor of Turkey’s largest city in an angry protest that augurs ill for Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz’s government.
"Government–resign!" some 5,000 demonstrators chanted outside Istanbul town hall in a rally of support for Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"The voters are here–where is Mesut?" they shouted. The protesters blocked a main street for several hours as riot police looked on nervously.
Noise from the demonstration echoed inside the council chambers throughout a news conference by Erdogan–sentenced on Tuesday to 10 months in jail for "inciting hatred" in a speech.
"We will continue our democratic struggle to the end. We will not bow our heads before repression," said the mayor–often tipped as the next leader of Turkey’s big Islamist movement.
Erdogan–free pending an appeal–greeted the crowd from the building’s balcony. He was flanked by Ankara’s Islamist mayor–Melih Gokcek–who also faces secularist legal probes.
A week of large Islamist demonstrations in Istanbul in March exposed cracks in the conservative-led coalition and forced Yilmaz to drop attempts to tighten a ban on Islamic-style headscarves in education.
The fiercely secularist army later accused Yilmaz of going soft on the Islamists in a strongly worded communiqu that further unnerved the government.
The prime minister has been boosted in recent weeks by positive economic data and talks with a left-wing power-broker that lessen the chances of early elections this year.
But parliament on Wednesday voted to set up a commission to investigate Yilmaz’s personal wealth–which could lead to a Supreme Court trial on corruption charges.
However Yilmaz members of parliament could still block the probe in committee stages.
Yilmaz–who took power last June after Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan quit under army pressure. welcomed the inquiry.
"I’m happy to be investigated. As I’ve always said–those who run a country should give account of themselves," Anatolian news agency quoted him as saying.
Mayor Erdogan–44–has risen in recent months to become potentially one of the main challengers to Yilmaz and the rest of the secularist political establishment.
He is seen as a replacement to his mentor Erbakan–effectively banned from politics by the constitutional court in January for threatening secularism. The Islamists are led for the moment by a caretaker chairman.
Tuesday’s verdict–taken against the prosecutor’s advice–could put Erdogan out of politics for good if confirmed by a higher court.
Interior Minister Murat Basesgioglu said he would apply to have Erdogan removed from office if the verdict was upheld.
Local government officials say mayors can be sacked and banned from ever holding office again if sentenced to more than six months in jail.
Erdogan was convicted under Turkey’s strict restraints on freedom of expression for making a speech last year in which he compared Islamist supporters to an army.
NATO member Turkey has often been criticized by its Western allies for stifling peaceful Kurdish and Islamist dissent.
"The case against the Istanbul mayor concerns us," visiting Dutch Euro member of parliament Piet Dankert said at a news conference. "It is important from the point of view of freedom of expression."
State authorities have also launched more than 70 administrative investigations into Ankara’s mayor Gokcek–some of which could lead to prosecution.
The liberal daily Yeni Yuzyil said the accusations included favoring political supporters in municipality tenders–sacking workers without just cause–and links to radical Islamist foundations.