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May 20, 2014 5:45 pm
In the weeks since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s triumph in Turkey’s local elections on March 30, and ahead of presidential elections he expects to win in August, a little column of black swans appears to be menacing this most mercurial of politicians, to which he reacts with ever more explosive eruptions of anger. Turkey’s prime minister seems, as the Irish would say, to be losing the run of himself.
The spectacle the Turkish prime minister offered in response to this month’s deadly fire at the Soma coal mine in western Turkey, which killed 301 miners in the country’s worst industrial accident, has unleashed new waves of anger across a bitterly polarised nation. Soma was a moment to pull the country together, to unite it in the face of tragedy. That is what a leader does, and certainly what a future president should do. What Mr Erdogan and his entourage did instead beggars belief.
First, he referred to the disaster as an “ordinary” occurrence in the mining industry. Then, faced with angry protests from mourners at Soma, he dismissed them as “immoral reprobates” before taking refuge in a local supermarket, where grainy video footage appears to show him assaulting a man – who later stated Mr Erdogan did indeed slap him. Meanwhile, Yusuf Yerkel, an aide to the prime minister, was photographed kicking a protester who was being held down by two security men.
The protests, which broke out elsewhere across Turkey in a manner threateningly reminiscent of the Taksim Square rebellion that convulsed the country last summer, aired charges of reckless negligence by the government and the owners to whom it had sold this originally state-owned mine. News that the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) had just three weeks previously thrown out an opposition proposal for an inquiry into safety at Soma only fanned the flames.
Four days earlier, Turks had witnessed another unedifying Erdogan spectacle, in his reaction to a speech by Metin Feyzioglu, chair of the Turkish Bar association. Mr Feyzioglu criticised the government’s trampling on press freedoms, social media and assembly, its laws to hamstring the judiciary and empower the main spy agency, and its efforts to squash investigation into a corruption scandal reaching deep into Mr Erdogan’s inner circle. The prime minister started heckling and gesturing, eventually storming out, shouting that the speech was “an indecency”.
He addresses himself not to Turkey but to the piously conservative Anatolian heartland to which his neo-Islamist party has given identity and a stake in the country’s wealth
There would appear to be a paradox here: Mr Erdogan has a preternatural rapport with Turkish voters and a political tin ear. From where he stands, however, there is no contradiction. He addresses himself not to Turkey but what he calls “my nation”: the piously conservative Anatolian heartland to which his neo-Islamist party has given identity and a stake in the country’s wealth. His instinct is to polarise and, after eight victories at the polls since 2002, no one can prove to him it does not work.
The kicking incident in Soma may be the politically indelible image of the tragedy for the Twitterati of Istanbul and Ankara, but Mr Erdogan’s supporters are unlikely to have seen it: they are mostly not on Twitter and the newspapers that support him did not carry it. They may well applaud the prime minister’s antagonism towards legal officials and the metropolitan secular elite he claims are mounting a judicial coup against him. He treats all discrepant opinion, and every perceived slight, as a plot against the national will that he alone embodies. The local elections showed that 44 per cent of Turks agreed with him. Mr Erdogan and the AKP behave increasingly as though the rule of law is something that is “nice to have” rather than the sine qua non of a modern liberal democracy.
Accident-prone and unbridled as he is, the prime minister faces little challenge to his power. He still looks as though he will win the presidency. But he will preside over a divided country, for he has squandered the opportunity to forge a new social contract: a democratic Turkey under the rule of law, at ease with its Muslim identity, and working towards complementing its longstanding membership of Nato with entry into the EU. That is a great pity for Turkey.
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