Middle East

Turkish PM's ambitions seen unscathed by disaster

A protester holds a sign that reads, "It is a murder not an accident" during a demonstration to blame the ruling Ak Party (AKP) government for the mining disaster in western Turkey, in Ankara May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

ANKARA, Turkey: Turkey's prime minister - a man the entire country expects to soon jump into the presidential campaign - should be on the defensive after being forced to seek shelter from angry demonstrators in a supermarket.

Not Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The incident at a deadly mine disaster Wednesday is unlikely to divert Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003, from his expected bid to become head of state and extend his role as the country's dominant political figure. He has not entered the race yet, but few doubt that 60-year-old political brawler is the favorite to win.

Turkey is a key political ally for the United States and the European Union in a tumultuous part of the world. Erdogan has been the man they have to deal with - and analysts say it is likely to stay that way, despite a growing frostiness in relations.

Once praised by Western leaders for being a moderate leader of a democratic Islamic government, Erdogan has damaged his reputation at home and abroad with his increasingly autocratic style and his tin-ear response to popular protests.

U.S. and European leaders "have an increasingly negative view of Erdogan but have no choice except to deal with him because of Turkey's strategic geography," Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow at Chatham House think tank in London, said in an interview Thursday.

The prime minister was notably tone-deaf Wednesday while visiting the site of Turkey's worst-ever coal mine disaster, which killed at least 283 people and left scores unaccounted for. Despite Turkey's long history of mining accidents, Erdogan displayed no remorse and accepted no blame for what happened, saying that mine accidents were "ordinary things" that happened in many countries. He did pledge a full investigation - but the damage was done.

Some of the distraught residents in Soma, many of whom had lost friends and family to the mine disaster, were incensed. Protesters heckled the prime minister, shouting "Murderer!" and "Thief!"

Erdogan was forced to seek refuge in a supermarket, surrounded by police, as anti-government protests broke out in Soma, Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. It did not help his image that one of his top aides kicked a protester in Soma who was being held on the ground by armed special forces police.

Erdogan is resilient, however. In the past, he has successfully portrayed his detractors as power-seeking plotters and has kept his support despite scandals and setbacks.

Koray Caliskan, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bosphorus University, noted that after the Soma disaster "no one is talking about anyone resigning."

Erdogan, he said, is such an astute politician that he could even manage to take advantage of the disaster by making himself look like the victim.

"Nothing will deter him from his ambition," Caliskan said.

The mine disaster "will dent the prime minister Erdogan's image as an effective, competent and powerful administrator, but I don't think it will lead to a dramatic decline in his popularity," Hakura said.

Erdogan's core support comes from religious and conservative elements of Turkish society and "they tend to focus primarily on economic issues rather than on mine accidents or civil liberties," he added.

International opinion, especially in the West, is harder to convince.

Erdogan was chided for his authoritarian statements and the sometimes-brutal police reaction to protests last summer in Istanbul's Taksim Square, which spread to scores of other cities and developed into Turkey's biggest protests in decades.

In March, Erdogan threatened to "rip out the roots" of Twitter, after it provided a platform for links to recordings suggesting government corruption and banned it till a court overturned the decision. He also shut down YouTube and threatened to ban Facebook.

Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit organization which defends freedom of expression, listed Turkey as 154th of 179 countries last year in its press freedom index. It described Turkey as "the world's biggest prison for journalists."

Meanwhile, a corruption scandal forced the departure of four members of Erdogan's government earlier this year.

But analysts say as long as the economy - which has flourished over the past decade but is now slowing down - doesn't turn sour, Erdogan will be able to count on the support of the Muslim middle classes of Turkey's heartland. They look upon Erdogan as their best chance at improving their standard of living after long being shut out by a secular elite.

Erdogan is eyeing the presidency after completing a maximum three terms as prime minister. With the opposition fractured, no other single figure can rally the same support.

Hakura says there is "a serious possibility" that Erdogan will win the August presidential election and maintain his political influence by installing a prime minister who he can manipulate

That presidential ambition won't be knocked off course by the Soma mine disaster, agreed Ercan Gurses, a political commentator for the Turkiye newspaper.

"Last summer's protests and the corruption allegations were much more sensational and they did not hurt him politically," Gurses said.

But, he added, Erdogan needs to show he can act decisively in response to the outcry and deaths in Soma.

"He has to ensure that, if some regulations were violated, that those responsible are severely punished," Gurses said.





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