Turks are used to seeing their mercurial Prime Minister make a scene -- some of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's voters even like him all the better for it. After all, this is the man who was crowned "The Conqueror of Davos" in 2009 after he stormed off the stage he was sharing at the World Economic Forum with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Of course, that took place abroad, with Erdogan teaching the world a lesson about messing with not just his but Turkey's honor. Lately, though, Erdogan has been displaying his temper and defending his honor domestically, in a way that is bringing him less accolades than his Davos outburst and which may ultimately cost him politically.
On May 10 Erdogan caused quite a stir when, while listening to a harshly critical speech being given by the head of Turkey's bar association, he heckled the speaker and then stormed out of the hall where the event was taking place. More disturbingly, while visiting yesterday the town of Soma, site of this week's tragic mining accident in western Turkey, Erdogan and his entourage appeared to physically lash out against locals who were part of a large group of people protesting the PM. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
A man from the mining disaster-struck town of Soma said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slapped him "involuntarily" during a scuffle on May 14, after the footage of the incident is revealed and condemned by opposition parties on May 15.
The crowd surrounding Erdoğan in the footage, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, makes it difficult to discern the exact circumstances of the incident.
However, at the beginning of the video several people are heard booing and whistling at Erdoğan, who then appears to single out one protester, telling him to “Come and boo me here to my face.”
After the unidentified person enters a nearby supermarket, Erdoğan is seen following him with his aides and bodyguards. The prime minister’s arm then appears to swing in the entrance of the supermarket amid the scuffle, before he walks from the area along with his security team.
Many social media users suggested that the video shows Erdoğan “punching” the protester, though it is not clear from the footage whether his fist is actually aimed at someone or whether it was just swung in protest.
Taner Kuruca told Kanal D television later on May 15 that he was the person who was heckled by the entourage of Erdoğan in the supermarket. Claiming that he was a regular customer of the supermarket and found himself in an awkward situation after Prime Minister was escorted there by his bodyguards who seeked a safe place amid the protest, Kuruca said:
"I was not one of the protesters. I came face to face with Prime Minister. As his bodyguards started to push, Prime Minister unfortunately did something involuntarily and slapped me while I was walking backwards, because he was angry at the crowd and he couldn't control himself."
Erdogan is widely believed to be positioning himself to run in this summer's presidential elections -- the first one in which Turks will be able to vote directly for the office. As the most imposing figure on the Turkish political scene, the PM remains the candidate most likely to win that election. Still, as the reception Erdogan got in Soma shows, rather than the uniting national figure that previous Turkish presidents have been, the PM has become a polarizing lighting rod.
Rather than cruising towards the presidency, Erdogan now finds himself having to swat away criticism that's steadily getting closer to him. As a result, Erdogan's discomfort is showing and his common touch -- previously one of the PM's greatest assets -- is starting to become increasingly rough.