Riot police pushed protesters from Taksim Square Tuesday, further escalating tensions that began with demonstrations over redeveloping a park. The Post’s Michael Birnbaum explains the conflict. (Brook Silva-Braga/The Washington Post)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that he has ordered his interior minister to put an end to the protests sweeping his country within 24 hours, while signaling openness to a referendum on plans to raze a park in Istanbul, which were the original source of public discontent.

As tens of thousands of people streamed back into Taksim Square a day after they were routed out by riot police using tear gas and high-pressure blasts from water cannons, protesters vowed that they would not be cowed by force. Turnout seemed higher than in recent days. Many people wore makeshift gas masks. One man played pop songs on a baby grand piano as shards of glass sparkled on the ground around him.

Erdogan’s order to the interior minister was disclosed in a closed-door meeting in Ankara with a trade union that was widely reported in local media and confirmed by a union official who attended the meeting; the official spoke on the condition of anonymity. The order suggested a violent denouement to the series of protests that began May 31 as demands to preserve Gezi Park from development but quickly expanded to broader complaints that Erdogan is leading the country toward authoritarianism.

“I gave orders to the interior minister to end the protests within 24 hours,” the NTV network reported Erdogan as saying.

Erdogan also met in Ankara with a group of 11 architects, academics and students to discuss the protests. The meeting in the capital had been billed as a conversation with protesters, but few in Gazi Park said the delegation represented them.

Erdogan told the group that police abuses would not be tolerated and that he may be open to a referendum to determine the fate of Gezi Park, said a spokesman for the prime minister’s Justice and Development Party, Huseyin Celik.

“Let’s ask Istanbul’s citizens how many of them want it, how many of them don’t,” Celik said.

On Wednesday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul struck a more placatory tone about the protesters than Erdogan, telling reporters, “It is our duty to lend them an ear.”

But Erdogan is the undisputed leader of Turkey, and his order to security forces to end protests within hours starts a countdown to a major confrontation across Turkey. Protests have reached even conservative areas that are traditional power bases for Erdogan’s party.

The protests have presented Erdogan with the biggest challenge to his decade in power. On Wednesday, demonstrators dug in at Gezi Park, which adjoins Taksim Square, and vowed to turn out in even greater force in the coming days. Some planted olive trees and flowers in the park to symbolize their resistance. Others, fearful of violence yet to come, focused on stocking medical tents with supplies.

“It’s not sustainable what we’re doing here. We know that,” said Ugur Bayraktar, 36, a biomedical engineer who was holding bright purple swim goggles and a blue bicycle helmet as a makeshift defense against tear gas and projectiles. “But it’s the spirit that’s the important part.”

Others vowed not to submit to attempts to thwart the protests through violent means.

As another day of protests continued in Turkey, this piano player entertained the masses in Istanbul’s main square. (Michael Birnbaum/The Washington Post)

“The more violent he gets, the more peaceful we get,” said Gulsah Yildiz, 24, a marketing student who was working Wednesday in the tent of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella organization for the protesters. “We talk, and he has to listen. It’s not going to be the same after this.”

Erdogan’s plan to raze Gezi Park, the last large green space in central Istanbul, and build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks on the site was the spark that ignited the protests. Erdogan, who won a sweeping parliamentary mandate in 2011 and remains popular with a conservative Islamic base, had until Wednesday held firm to his plans to redevelop the park. Some protesters said Wednesday that backing down on the development plan would be enough for them to return home. Others said their concerns had long ago moved beyond the fate of a stand of trees.

But most protesters could agree Wednesday that they were furious they had been pushed from Taksim Square a day earlier. The square had been largely closed to traffic since May 31, but on Tuesday, police removed barricades that the protesters had erected and stripped a central monument of revolutionary banners. They did the same at the Ataturk Cultural Center, a disused building facing Taksim Square, and hung instead a giant Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Police clashed with a small group of people throwing molotov cocktails. And they used tear gas to repeatedly drive protesters out of Taksim Square. But by Wednesday evening, thousands of protesters had returned, and police stood by on the outskirts of the square.

“What happened yesterday was police theater,” said Merve Sendil, 24, who works at a local bank and came to see Gezi Park on Wednesday with her co-
workers, all of whom were wearing business dresses or suits and said they had been attending protests in the evenings.

“We work at a bank. We’re not terrorists,” she said. “Erdogan should come here and talk to people and see what the problem is.”

Four people have died in the protests, and about 5,000 people have been injured, according to health organizations.