Turkey’s worst mining disaster in history — at least 274 reported dead so far, with 120 still trapped underground — continued to take on political overtones Thursday with the publication of a photo showing government advisor Yusuf Yerkel kicking a protester at a mine safety demonstration Wednesday. Yerkel, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s deputy cabinet chief, claims he was acting in self-defense after the man in question attacked him. Witnesses, however, report that the so-called attack consisted of the protester kicking a car belonging to the prime minister’s convoy.
The viral photo of Yerkel, who has been dubbed a “white collar thug” on social media, will only add to Erdogan’s bad luck. The premier is coming off a turbulent year, which saw Turkey roiled by nationwide protests sparked by Erdogan’s (mis)handling of the Gezi Park protests, and more recently a domestic political scandal that reached the highest echelons of the Turkish leader’s administration. Yet the lessons from the dual scandals look to have been short-lived, and the outspoken P.M. is now plunging headfirst into a new crisis.
During a visit to the Soma mining site Wednesday, Erdogan noted that labor accidents such as the deadly industrial explosion were “normal,” mirroring a similar remark he made in 2010 after a mining accident left 30 dead. (Note that while Erdogan maintains such accidents are common, citing mining disasters in England and France, they are alarmingly so in Turkey, which was ranked third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012 by the International Labor Organization (ILO).)
The public response to Erdogan’s comments was quick and heated – angry Soma residents heckled the premier, who was reportedly forced to seek temporary refuge in a nearby supermarket, and broke windows at local government buildings. Across Turkey, protests were held on Wednesday night, notably in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where thousands gathered to call for the government to step down, before being violently dispersed by security forces in a troubling echo of last year’s protest movement.
Turkey’s unions and opposition are jumping into the fray as well. The former held a general strike on Thursday, while the latter is accusing Erdogan’s Justice and Development ruling party (AKP) of neglecting security norms. Little wonder; the opposition has plentiful ammunition here. Namely in the AKP’s dismissal of a parliamentary motion introduced by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to investigate safety standards in the nation’s mines — particularly those near Soma — two weeks ago.
Now, protesters are seizing on Yerkel’s behavior as a symbol of government inaction. The incident, compounded with the premier’s dismissive remarks at Soma, could strike at Erdogan’s populist image in a way previous scandals could not – think former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “Casse-toi, alors pauvre con” (get lost you bloody idiot) comments and resulting backlash — in the lead up to the premier’s expected presidential bid. But while the expected move here is to fire the advisor, the combative Erdogan is known neither for his caution nor his restraint. Case in point: last summer, the prime minister called anti-government protesters “anarchists and terrorists,” further igniting the movement. With Erdogan once again on the defensive, the stage is set for even more inflammatory comments, and perhaps even a lasting dent to his premiership.