ISTANBUL: For a man with ambitions to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president in a few months’ time, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have done little to unite the country at a moment of national tragedy.
He was heckled and one of his aides photographed kicking a protester this week as he visited a mining community where at least 283 people died and scores remain trapped in the nation’s worst ever 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, donning his glasses to read a list of mining accidents dating back a century and a half in response to suggestions that Turkish regulation may have been at fault.
An amateur video clip appeared to show him saying “Come here and jeer at me!” as he walked through a hostile crowd in the town, flanked by security guards. His car was later kicked as it drove away.
Even for a leader whose combative style has increasingly polarized the country in recent years, it might have seemed an ill-advisedly bellicose performance.
But abrasiveness is Erdogan’s stock-in-trade, a style with which he has over the past year 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 29-year old Sinan, 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 widely 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.
“I’m not a man who cries but I cried yesterday,” said Talip Dere, 45, a sports equipment shop owner, of the mine tragedy.
“But all criticisms aside, Erdogan is a strong leader who delivers, and politicians need to deliver.”
In Soma, the mining town, angry residents broke windows at the local government offices Wednesday, some chanting “Erdogan resign,” while parts of the crowd lined the street jeering as the prime minister walked through the town.
There were also protests in Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities in southern Turkey, most of them organized by labor unions angered by what they see as crony capitalism and the private sector’s disregard for workers’ rights.
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 unprecedented during his time in office.
The two-week closure of social networking site Twitter and a block on access to video-sharing platform YouTube as he battled the corruption scandal earlier this year drew further criticism at home and abroad of his authoritarian tendencies.
But Erdogan cast both the protests and the corruption probe as part of a plot to undermine him, a strategy which helped push his ruling party to a sweeping victory in the March elections.
The prime minister has warned “extremists” against exploiting the mine tragedy and some of his supporters have accused this week’s protesters of trying to smear his government even as miners were still trapped underground.
“There is a proper time and place for everything and this is not that,” said Aydin, a 42-year old cook at a canteen in Kasimpasa whose father and grandfather were coal miners in Zonguldak, the country’s main mining area on the Black Sea.
Turkey’s opposition is divided along ideological lines, with the main Republican People’s Party (CHP) seen as the preserve of a secularist elite and other parties failing to make much of an impact in more than small patches of the electoral map.
In Kasimpasa, an area where most women cover their hair and the orange and blue bunting of the Islamist-rooted AK Party adorns most streets, there is simply no other option.
“People will still vote for Erdogan because it’s like being in love with someone for too long and not noticing how they have changed for the worse,” said Sinan, the restaurant worker, reflecting on the events of recent days.
“People are under his spell and not seeing his bad sides.”