Turkish PM’s ambitions seen unscathed by disaster

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In this Wednesday, May 14, 2014 photo, Yusuf Yerkel, right, advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands behind Erdogan during his visit in Soma, Turkey. Yerkel was identified by Turkish media as the advisor who kicked a protester who was held by special forces police members during Erdogan’s visit to Soma, Turkey. Erdogan was visiting the western Turkish mining town of Soma after Turkey’s worst mining accident . (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

In this Wednesday, May 14, 2014 photo, Yusuf Yerkel, right, advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands behind Erdogan during his visit in Soma, Turkey. Yerkel was identified by Turkish media as the advisor who kicked a protester who was held by special forces police members during Erdogan’s visit to Soma, Turkey. Erdogan was visiting the western Turkish mining town of Soma after Turkey’s worst mining accident . (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

In this Wednesday, May 14, 2014 photo, Yusuf Yerkel, right, advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, receives a note from Erdogan during his visit in Soma, Turkey. Yerkel identified by the Turkish media as the advisor who allegedly kicked a protester who was held by special forces police members during Erdogan’s visit to Soma. Erdogan was visiting the western Turkish mining town of Soma after Turkey’s worst mining accident.(AP Photo/Depo Photos) TURKEY OUT ONLINE OUT

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 14, 2014 a person identified by Turkish media as Yusuf Yerkel, advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, kicks a protester already held by special forces police members during Erdogan’s visiting Soma, Turkey. Erdogan was visiting the western Turkish mining town of Soma after Turkey’s worst mining accident . AP Photo/Depo Photos) TURKEY OUT ONLINE OUT

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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.

“Nothing will deter him from his ambition,” Caliskan said.

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.

International opinion, especially in the West, is harder to convince.

Erdogan was chided for his authoritarian statements and the sometimes-brutal police reaction to protests last summer in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which spread to scores of other cities and developed into Turkey’s biggest protests in decades.

In March, Erdogan threatened to “rip out the roots” of Twitter, after it provided a platform for links to recordings suggesting government corruption and banned it till a court overturned the decision. He also shut down YouTube and threatened to ban Facebook.

Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit organization which defends freedom of expression, listed Turkey as 154th of 179 countries last year in its press freedom index. It described Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.”

Meanwhile, a corruption scandal forced the departure of four members of Erdogan’s government earlier this year.

But analysts say as long as the economy — which has flourished over the past decade but is now slowing down — doesn’t turn sour, Erdogan will be able to count on the support of the Muslim middle classes of Turkey’s heartland. They look upon Erdogan

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