Istanbul, Reuters—Istanbul went into a security lockdown on Friday as thousands of Turkish police manned barricades and closed off streets to traffic to stop May Day rallies at the central Taksim Square, a symbolic point for anti-government protests.
Citing security concerns, authorities shut down much of the city’s public transport system and dispatched riot police to block Taksim off from demonstrators. A traditional rallying point for leftists, the square was the center of weeks of protests in the summer of 2013.
Hundreds of flag-waving protesters gathered in the nearby Besiktas neighborhood, where they were held back by lines of police. Critics say President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the government have become more authoritarian ahead of June elections.
“This meeting is peaceful and is not armed,” opposition politician Mahmut Tanal, who was holding a pocket-sized book of the Turkish constitution, told Reuters. “People want to express their problems but the government doesn’t want those problems to be heard ahead of elections.”
Elsewhere the city was unusually quiet, with many shops shuttered and few pedestrians. In some neighborhoods, helicopters flew overhead.
The government had said the square would only be open to those who came peacefully and to show their “respect.” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Thursday he would visit to lay carnations and commemorate fellow citizens.
Opposition parties and unions have called on the government to lift the ban.
Erdoğan has previously dismissed protesters as “riff-raff” and terrorists, outraged by the weeks of demonstrations in 2013 that brought unwanted international attention and posed the biggest challenge to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002.
Erdoğan is aiming for a massive victory for the AKP in June parliamentary polls, which would allow it to change the constitution and give him the broad presidential powers he seeks.
The 2013 Taksim protests began as a peaceful demonstration against plans to redevelop Gezi Park, a leafy corner of the square. After a police crackdown, the demonstration spread into weeks of nationwide protests against Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule.