Street Fighting Sultan: Erdogan's Troubled, Troubling Visit to Soma

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.


This Week in Tayyip: Erdogan Woos, Weds Lady Love

So begins a new weekly series covering the man who has run the Republic of Turkey for nearly a dozen years -- Kasimpasa-born, Rize-raised, Erbakan-weened, former simitci and futbolcu, devlet ve baba all in one, the unstoppable, inimitable Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sunday started well for Tayyip, as he decked himself out in a plaid 1970s-style sports-coat, in apparent sartorial solidarity with his base, and voted in Uskudar, a conservative district on Istanbul's Asian side.

Then it got even better, as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) trounced all comers in nation-wide municipal elections. The ruling party took an estimated 45.5 percent of the national vote, handily beating the main opposition CHP's 28 percent and marking a perfect six-for-six in elections since the party's 2001 founding. The AKP's total represents an increase of seven points from the last local elections, in 2009, though a four-point drop from 2011 parliamentary elections.

As he took to his Ankara balcony to deliver the victory speech Sunday night, the PM was in high spirits. He began by waxing Ottoman, thanking his "brothers" in Palestine and Egypt, the Balkans and Syria, before thanking the voters themselves. "My brothers, I thank you very much because you have protected the new Turkey’s struggle for independence. I thank each of you because you have protected the ideal of a great Turkey and the targets of a great Turkey."

He went on to declare war against his many unseen enemies. "Those who managed could flee. More can flee tomorrow. I have filed criminal complaints about some of them; they can also flee. As I have said, from now on we’ll enter their lairs. They will pay for this. How can you threaten our national security?"

He added a bit more fire and brimstone, then appeared to contradict himself, hinting at forgiveness. "Come on, let’s turn over a new page. Oh, the opposition. Oh, the people who have given their hearts to the opposition. Turkey’s interests must be over everything else...Let’s raise Turkey together...We have come to serve the people, not to be a master over them. We are only the porters of a big stone on the path."

Winding down after about 20 minutes, the prime minister claimed his blushing bride. "This is the wedding day of the new Turkey," he said, before closing with a bit of romance. "We got wet together under the pouring rain. In all the songs I am listening to now, everything reminds me of you. Everything reminds me of Turkey."

Tayyip has wooed you, Turkey, and won your hearts yet again. He's all yours.


Turkey's Roller Coaster Voting Day May Mark Onset of Political Winter

Sunday morning -- the day of highly anticipated local elections in Turkey -- brought blue skies and sunshine in Istanbul. Voters turned out early, waiting cheerily in snaking lines outside polling places in Fatih and Pendik, Cihangir, Uskudar and Kadikoy. Then reality set in.

The trouble began with reports of violence in Turkey's southeast, as brawls and gunfights broke out between backers of rival candidates, resulting in at least eight deaths. Reports of vote manipulation soon streamed in from across the country -- polling place workers handing out the wrong envelopes or urging voters to back a specific party; vote-count observers blocked from entering polling places; ballot papers annulled; the niqab serving as an ID card in one conservative district. As of this morning, the count of citizen-submitted reports of fraud and irregularities at one reliable website stood at 289.

Shortly before polls closed, news websites affiliated with the Gulen movement became inaccessible, reportedly subject to cyber attacks (they have since been restored). Early vote counts diverged widely, with the backers of respective parties reporting the numbers in their favor. To top it off, the power went out in several cities across the country, hampering evening vote counts. Some saw a human hand, others pointed to poor weather conditions in eastern regions.

We saw the expected: politicians of all stripes turned out to vote, including Turkey PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in one of the 1970s-style sports jackets he favors; in a conservative district of Istanbul, bare-chested FEMEN protesters stood on top of tables at a polling place and denounced Turkey's government; and the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won Istanbul in a tight race, taking the day's biggest prize.

And the unexpected: a story posted on the website of pro-government Daily Sabah, since altered, claimed Erdogan had won the mayoralty in his childhood home of Rize, along the Black Sea; the AKP lost the Hatay (Antakya) mayoralty to the CHP, in possible fallout from its Syria policy; and as of this morning, the vote in Ankara remained disputed and may end up in court.

There were also signs of progress. In the 90-plus years of the republic, no major Turkish city had been run by a woman. Now the country has not one, but three female metropolitan mayors, including the AKP's Fatma Sahin in Turkey's sixth-largest city, Gaziantep. Further, in the Meram district of Konya, Turkey gained its first-ever headscarfed mayor. Turnout reportedly hit a record, with 92 percent of the country's 52.7 million eligible voters taking to the polls. And the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) looked set to record its first-ever mayoral win, in the eastern province of Tunceli.

But this day was about one man. In the end, despite the corruption allegations, the mass protests and shameful leaks, the AKP took about 45 percent of the national vote, making the party a perfect six for six in elections since its 2001 founding and hinting at a one-party state. An empowered, energized Erdogan declared victory long before midnight, warning that his enemies would "pay the price."

With more meaningful elections still to come, it's a safe bet that the crackdowns on opponents of the regime -- journalists and Gulenists, secularists, protesters, progressives, and social media users -- will continue, perhaps even increase. Erdogan is likely to either run for president this August, or alter party rules and campaign for a fourth term as prime minister in parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015.

The Turkish people have spoken, and if the current results hold, it would seem they’re OK with a corrupt near-police state overseen by a bombastic, dissent-crushing, conspiracy theory-prone strongman. Despite the arrival of spring, Turkey may be looking at a long, dark political winter.