ISTANBUL — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heading to Germany Saturday in hopes of boosting prospects for his widely expected presidential bid in upcoming elections.
Facing intense criticism for his handling of last week’s mining disaster — the worst in Turkish history — Erdogan's candidacy has come into question.
On Thursday, two people died on the streets of Istanbul during clashes with police. Demonstrators angered by the disaster that killed 301 miners are now condemning police crowd-control tactics that they say contributed to at least one of the deaths.
Erdogan only intensified public anger when he said he does not understand how police "stay so patient" with protesters.
According to officials, one fatality was caused by a stray bullet fired by police. Activists say the a 30-year-old man fit killed was walking in a funeral procession, not demonstrating, when a bullet struck. Police say Thursday's second fatality happened when a man's homemade grenade exploded prematurely.
Many Turks' anger increased when they watched boradcasts of a grainy video that appears to show the prime minister striking a miner during his visit to the site of last week's calamity.
Even before the latest incidents, Erdogan was already under fire over alleged government corruption.
Nevertheless, political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center says Erdogan is still benefiting from his perceived ability to to evade blame for such controversies.
"The embezzlement graft and corruption is one thing. Lost lives is something else. The people are very angry. But every single act [Erdogan] has committed himself; he has got away with it," said Aktar.
Erdogan scored one political victory in March when his AK Party comfortably won local elections. Analysts suggest the lack of a strong political alternative for voters was a key factor in Erdogan’s success.
Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar from the Brussels Carnegie Institute, says the prime minister is likely to be the favorite if he decides to run for president this August, but he warned that anger over the Soma mining disaster is likely to bolster the opposition.
"He certainly would be the lead candidate. There is an effort on the side of the opposition to field a common candidate [on whom all can agree]," said Ulgen. "If they are able to do that, then they can at least compete against Erdogan."
During his visit to Germany Saturday, Erdogan will have an opportunity to court millions of eligible Turkish voters. Observers see this as a sign he is not taking victory for granted.
Public-opinion polls show roughly equal numbers of Turks support and oppose the prime minister.
Analyst Aktar warns that an election victory for Erdogan could have serious consequences for Turkey, due to his polarizing nature and reputation.
'The danger is that, if he gets away with everything that he does, that it will create an overall blaze at some stage — a fire that will consume the whole of Turkish society. It's already consuming it, because a society can’t hold together that way," he said.
Despite those sharply divergent opinions about Erdogan, he is arguably Turkey’s most successful politician. However, the Soma mining disaster is likely to deepen the divisions within Turkish society even if, as expected, the prime minister moves on to the presidency in August's election.