Turkish PM's ambitions seen unscathed by disaster

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm •  Published: May 15, 2014
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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — 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.

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