Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rides out anger over mine disaster

Prime minister likely to weather storm over his reaction to pit tragedy, and aide's kicking of a protester, as he prepares to run for president

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 2:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 2:10am

For a man with ambitions to become Turkey's first popularly elected president, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have done little to unite the country at a time of national tragedy.

He was heckled and one of his aides, Yusuf Erkel, was photographed kicking a protester this week as Erdogan visited the mining community of Soma, where almost 300 people died and scores remain trapped in the nation's worst mining disaster.

Erdogan expressed regret for the tragedy, but told a news conference in the town that it was the sort of incident that happened all over the world, putting on his glasses to read a list of mining accidents dating back 150 years in response to suggestions that Turkish regulation may have been at fault.

A video clip appeared to show him saying, "Come here and jeer at me!" as he walked through a hostile crowd in Soma, flanked by security guards. His car was kicked as it was driven away.

The left-wing newspaper Evrensel reported that Erdogan had punched or slapped a girl near a supermarket after she accused him of killing her father.

That moment was also caught on film. Another video apparently from the scene clearly shows his guards attacking a man.

Meanwhile Erkel, who became the subject of a social media frenzy after the photo of him kicking a protester went viral, was unrepentant. He said: "He attacked and insulted me as well as the prime minister. Should I have stayed silent?"

Abrasiveness is Erdogan's stock-in-trade. It is a style with which, over the past year, he has weathered anti-government protests, a corruption scandal and a feud with an influential Islamic preacher he accuses of trying to unseat him.

In the narrow streets of Istanbul's Kasimpasa district, where Erdogan grew up and commands fervent support, his handling of the tragedy did little to dent loyalty to a man seen as a champion of the religiously conservative working classes.

"He's been very blunt and his temperament has got the better of him," said Sinan, 29, a server in a fast-food shop opposite the local headquarters of Erdogan's ruling AK Party.

"Some of my clients who are staunch supporters regret his crass style, but they would never say so in public and they would never vote for someone else ... He does not have any serious political opponents," he said.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, is expected to run in the country's first direct elections for president in August, buoyed by a strong AK Party showing in municipal polls at the end of March.

Until now, the president has been chosen by parliament and played a largely ceremonial role. Erdogan has said that the popular vote will give the post more authority, and has vowed to exercise its full powers if elected.

In Soma yesterday, police used tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets to disperse demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans.

Some protesters hurled stones at the police. At least five people including two police were wounded and there were reports of some arrests.

The town had already seen residents smash windows at the local government offices on Wednesday, some chanting "Erdogan resign".

A year ago Erdogan came under fire for a heavy-handed response to a protest against the redevelopment of Istanbul's Gezi Park, clashes which turned into large-scale demonstrations.

The two-week closure of Twitter and a block on access to YouTube as he battled the corruption scandal earlier this year drew further criticism.

But Erdogan said the protests and the corruption probe were part of a plot to undermine him, a strategy which helped push his ruling party to a sweeping victory in the March elections.

Additional reporting by The Washington Post