Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, is a natural born fighter; in Turkish his surname means “a soldier is born,” or "brave (male) hawk." So it seems fitting that the past year of criticism and instability has made him increasingly combative.
Since the Gezi Park protests last May, he and his advisers have lashed out at a laundry list of real and imagined enemies, from the interest rate lobby to the Jewish diaspora, and from foreign media to Lufthansa, the parallel state and Pennsylvania, the sanctuary of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Confronted by an unfamiliar foe last week, Erdogan went one better. Arriving in the small Turkish city of Soma the day after a coalmine fire that ultimately killed more than 300 workers – Turkey’s deadliest-ever human-caused disaster – the prime minister’s car was mobbed by angry locals as it wound slowly through the streets.
In the city center, he emerged from the car and prepared to speak. Here was an opportunity for Erdogan's bullhorn moment, as when US President George W. Bush appeared at the site of the Twin Towers days after 9/11 and, improvising in response to a shout from the crowd, expressed the sentiment of so many New Yorkers and Americans.
Instead, the Turkish prime minister delivered a defensive speech of jaw-dropping insensitivity. “These types of incidents are ordinary things,” he said. "Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time." Surrounded by the sobbing family members of dead and missing miners, he downplayed their suffering, citing similar disasters that happened in Western countries a century ago.
Walking through the crowd minutes later, Erdogan found himself jostled and jeered and stopped to berate a group of men. “Those who boo the prime minister of the country will get slapped,” he said, jabbing with his finger.
Erdogan quickly made good on his word. He led his entourage inside a grocery store and came upon a young man in a blue shirt. “I was not one of the protesters but just a customer of the store,” the man, Taner Kurucan, later told reporters. He began to back away from Erdogan and his security team as they approached.
“Why are you running away? Come here, you were just telling me to resign,” Erdogan seems to say in this video, lunging toward Kurucan before grabbing and smacking him. “Why are you running away, you spawn of Israel?”
In the space of about 15 minutes, the leader of a country of nearly 80 million people brushed aside the almost unprecedented suffering of his citizens for political purposes, threatened mourners to their faces when they dared express their frustration, and finally wielded violence and, possibly, an anti-Semitic slur on an innocent bystander. It was a performance worthy of Game of Thrones’ fictional, venomous King Joffrey -- and all the more conspicuous just weeks after South Korea's prime minister resigned in the wake of a ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people.
That the slapping victim quickly forgave his tormentor probably said more about Turks than their leader. “I believe the prime minister slapped me involuntarily,” said Kurucan. “He could not control his emotions and took it out on me. It was an unfortunate event, but I do not think he did it on purpose. Then the bodyguards beat me up and I fell down by the freezer.”
Was Erdogan in control? Let's peak inside his head. For starters, his power is nearly absolute. He has been surrounded by yes-men for a decade and has never lost an election, including a confidence-building victory a month and a half ago.
When he recently found himself listening to a speech critical of his government, Erdogan flew into a rage, as President Abdullah Gul, sitting next to him, tried to curb his heckling. “You are misbehaving, and your statements are false,” he shouted at the lawyer giving the speech, before storming out of the hall, entourage in tow.
He is constantly courted by a flaccid media, with reporters often pitching one softball question after another and newspapers and TV stations presenting only the most friendly spins on the news of the day. “Such pandering has made him sloppy, complacent, and blinkered,” writes William Armstrong, an analyst of Turkish media, “so that when a ‘black swan’ event like the disaster in Soma occurs, he is simply not conditioned to respond adequately.”
Not only is he unable to respond adequately, these days he seems capable of only two emotions: pride, when victorious or touting his accomplishments, and belligerence, when faced with dissent.
So this prime minister comes to a town wracked by grief and seething with pain, expecting the usual fealty. When instead his very own people – working class, conservative Turks, rather than Alevis or Kurds or urbane, Twitter-using liberals – boo and hiss and call for his ouster, his blood boils. He needs to lash out, but he knows he is in an open, public space, watched by dozens of cameras and thousands of eyes.
So he threatens, then makes his way to a more protected spot and curses and smacks the first person he finds. The fact that he issued a warning and proceeded to find a hidden spot to unleash his temper shows that he remained in control of his actions, if not his emotions. Yet still we caught a glimpse of the unprecedented.
Turkey has seen a great deal of political turmoil in its 90 years, but never before has a prime minister physically assaulted a Turkish citizen in public. But nor has a prime minister ruled Turkey for this long. The extended reign with minimal political competition has lent Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a macho air of superior infallibility.
It's there in Erdogan aide Yusuf Yerkel's kicking of a Soma protester being held down by two policemen, and in the AKP spokesman later defending Yerkel’s actions. It's there in just about everything Erdogan does these days.
And it’s likely to extend through August, when for the first time in Turkey’s history, politicians will directly compete for one of the highest offices in the land. The presidential election will not be about party, like the campaigns that have come before. Voters will instead cast ballots for individual candidates, ostensibly unaffiliated with any party.
He has yet to declare his candidacy, but many believe this is the election Erdogan has been anticipating for much of his career. The problem is that with his dreadful Soma performance he may have finally begun to alienate his sizable base. It does not bode well for Turkey’s democracy that, just now, this street fighter appears surlier than ever, and willing and able to do whatever he pleases.