“Come and boo me here to my face,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan challenged a young man later identified as Taner Kuruca during his visit to the town of Soma two weeks ago. “If you do that, I’ll slap you.” Seconds later, after they both entered a supermarket, Erdogan delivered the promised slap. Kuruca later told the media, “I understood what happened ... the prime minister unfortunately did something involuntarily and slapped me while I was walking backwards, because he was angry at the crowd and couldn’t control himself.”
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It was a busy day for Erdogan’s aides. Earlier, one of his advisers, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking one of the many protesters waiting for the prime minister’s entourage in Soma, where four days earlier more than 300 miners died when a coal mine collapsed. The reasons for the tragedy are still unclear, but that did not stop one of Turkey’s Islamist newspapers from implying that it was because the mine owner, Alp Gurkan, had allowed his daughter to marry a Jew. Another Islamist figure said the disaster was caused by the presence of bikini-clad women on a nearby beach.
It was not Erdogan’s finest hour. The people of Soma greeted him with boos and calls of protest and accused the government of negligence in supervising the country’s mines, which are considered the most dangerous in the world.
But it seems that these protests, like the rallies last weekend marking the one-year anniversary of the demonstrations in Taksim Square protesting the destruction of Gezi Park, will not stop Erdogan’s journey to the top. Carried on the wave of his party’s success in the March 30 local elections — it won 44 percent of the votes — Erdogan is getting ready for the presidential election, scheduled for April 10, 2015.
Not coincidentally, the trial of 255 demonstrators who were arrested and charged in connection to last year’s protests began recently, and the Turkish chief of staff warned of the threat to state security posed by social media networks.
Next year’s vote will be Turkey’s first direct presidential election; previously, the parliament chose the president, as in Israel. Erdogan, whose candidacy has his party’s endorsement, said the vote would give him more power, which he intends to use. While the parliament blocked him from amending the constitution in order to introduce a presidential system of government, he clearly has no intention of being a figurehead, like the incumbent President Abdullah Gul.
Even without a presidential regime, the Turkish president has broad powers. They include the ability to declare war, appoint the chief of staff, introduce new legislation, return legislation to parliament for revision, introduce constitution amendments, appoint or dismiss cabinet ministers at the prime minister’s request, head the National Security Council, declare martial law, order government investigations through the State Supervisory Council, appoint the judges of the Constitutional Court and to sign amendments — subject to the constitution — that cannot be appealed even in the Constitutional Court.
Gul did not use any of these powers, but Erdogan is not Gul. He seeks to push through a new election law before next year’s parliamentary election, through which he hopes to convene a parliament that will approve the legislation needed to switch to a presidential form of government.
The Gezi Park protests, the Soma mine disaster and the corruption scandals in which Erdogan and members of his family have been implicated all seem to have rolled off him like water off a duck’s back, without tarnishing his image. It is true that complaints about Erdogan’s “democratic dictatorship” are increasingly heard from figures in his party, but with the exception of the resignations of a handful of high-ranking cabinet ministers belonging to his party who resigned, Erdogan is firmly in control of his political power base and at least for now his leadership is unchallenged.
In an opinion piece he wrote last week, Burak Bekdil, a senior political columnist for Hurriyet Daily News, noted several similarities between the Turkish and Saudi penal codes. For example, he wrote, Saudi laws against “destabilizing society” and “offending the nation’s reputation” have their parallels in Turkish statutes prohibiting “offending the religious or moral values of the society.” Bekdil also mentions prosecutors’ recommendation of up to 52 years in prison for Mehmet Baransu of the Taraf daily for “publishing state secrets.” Baransu was charged with reporting last year on a 2004 session of Turkey’s National Security Council that discussed cracking down on an organization inspired by a rival to Erdogan, the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Comparing Erdogan’s slap of Kuruca to the lashes to which offenders in Saudi Arabia can be sentenced for the crime of “disobeying the rightful ruler,” Bekdil writes: “ Fortunately, we remain at the stage of de facto punishment for that offense, rather than de jure.”
But even this criticism, like other criticism in Turkish media outlets not owned by Erdogan’s supporters, will not affect the prime minister’s popularity. Erdogan, who is in his third term as premier, is still considered the only figure who can maintain Turkey’s stability and its honor. Foreign policy failures? Frozen relations with Egypt? Tension with the United States and criticism from Europe? None of this changes the fact that Turks are earning more and feeling better about their financial future, the high unemployment rate notwithstanding. To judge by the public-opinion polls and the results of the local elections, Erdogan and his aides can continue to slap and kick his constituents.