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Turkey

Mining disaster creates political problem for Erdogan

The death of hundreds of miners in the Soma mining explosion in western Turkey, and the government's subsequent handling of the disaster, have increased political pressure on Prime Minister Erdogan.

After the worst mining disaster in Turkish history, the government is dealing with some unwanted attention. And the matter-of-fact response from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn't helped matters.

Upon visiting the site of Tuesday's accident, Erdogan described the disaster as an inevitable risk of mining, giving examples of previous disasters ranging back to the 19th century.

"Such accidents happen," said Erdogan, still not indicating whether he plans to respond to the demands of trade unionists for the resignation or dismissal of the ministers of labor and energy, Faruk Celik and Taner Yildiz.

During his visit to Soma on Wednesday (14.05.2014), Erdogan was confronted with an angry crowd calling for his resignation. Some attacked the prime minster's official car, kicking it as Erdogan drove by. According to press reports, the prime minister sought temporary refuge in a supermarket and eventually broke off his visit before a planned visit to injured miners at the district hospital.

Erdogan's adviser kicks a protester REUTERS

During Erdogan's visit to Soma, his adviser Yusuf Yerkel attacked a protester

Negative headlines

The Turkish press has been severe in its criticism of the 60-year-old Erdogan over the last few days, with the opposition liberal newspaper "Taraf" writing that the prime minister's reaction had been "unbelievable." Erdogan's adviser, Yusuf Yerkel, provided additional negative headlines on Thursday (15.05.2014) when a video surfaced showing him kicking a protestor being held down by police.

The angry demonstrators in Soma belong to what until now has been Erdogan's traditional support base, mostly conservative workers and tradesmen who have backed his ruling AKP. In local elections in late March, the AKP took 43.3 percent of the vote in Soma, corresponding almost exactly to the national average.

'People don't have a heart of stone'

The protests weren't restricted to Soma, with demonstrators taking to the streets in numerous Turkish cities in the days following the disaster. In Istanbul and the western city of Izmir on Thursday, police confronted protesters with water cannons and tear gas.

Mustafa Sönmez, an economist and author, said he was convinced that the Soma disaster will have political consequences. He told DW that the high death toll, the allegations of insufficient safety measures and Erdogan's unsuccessful response to the tragedy have all been a significant blow for the AKP. "Even AKP supporters will have some thinking to do," he said. "People don't have a heart of stone."

The tragedy has come at a critical time for Erdogan. In the coming weeks, he is expected to announce whether he intends to run in the August presidential election. Since the AKP victory in the March local elections, his candidacy for the country's highest public office is all but certain. According to news reports, the only reason for his hesitation is because he first wants to settle the question of his successor in the AKP.

Turkish riot police use water cannon to disperse protestors EPA/ERDEM SAHIN

Protesters in numerous cities have taken to the streets, calling for Erdogan to resign

Strong polarization

Whether Erdogan is expecting any negative consequences for his presidential candidacy following the mining disaster is as yet unknown. But according to pollster Adil Gür, the prime minister shouldn't be too worried. "I don't expect the disaster to have any effect on the decisions of the voters," Gür told DW.

Gür said the Turkish electorate has become "incredibly polarized" over the last several years, which is why most AKP voters are likely to remain true to Erdogan's AKP, even after the Soma disaster.

He pointed out that even when faced with the serious allegations of corruption against Erdogan's government and the AKP leadership, voter support has not decreased. In addition, AKP supporters believe that Erdogan's decision to proclaim three days of national mourning following his visit to Soma was "well received" by the people.

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