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 the site of a deadly mine explosion and collapse 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.
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.
The death toll from Tuesday’s disaster rose to 283 – with at least 140 missing – and grieving relatives laid their dead to rest in mass burials Thursday.
Despite Turkey’s long history of mining accidents, Erdogan during his Wednesday visit displayed no remorse and accepted no blame for what happened, saying that mine accidents were ordinary things that happened in many countries.
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.
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.