ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Flanked by half a dozen body guards, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan turns towards a crowd baying for his resignation in a mining town still shocked and grieving after the country’s worst industrial disaster.
Stern-faced and wagging his finger, he remonstrates with several men before leaning towards them over a police barricade and delivering a warning.
“Don’t be rude,” he says, according to mobile phone footage captured by a member of the public and broadcast by the Dogan news agency. “If you boo the prime minister of this country, you’ll get a slap.”
He appears to have been true to his word.
“Come here and jeer at me!” he dares another demonstrator before his entourage forces its way into a supermarket. Grainy footage from a second phone shows him apparently slapping a man in a blue T-shirt, who then drops to the floor next to an ice cream freezer as he is punched and kicked by suited bodyguards.
The man, Taner Kurucan, later said Erdogan had been unable to control himself in the heat of the moment and had given him an “involuntary slap”.
Erdogan’s aides denied he struck anyone, but the fracas set in stark relief the impulsive tendencies of a man who has dominated Turkish politics for over a decade, and who takes criticism of his leadership as a deep personal affront.
Yet while the sight of him confronting angry residents of a town still burying its dead may shock, it is unlikely to derail his ambition to become Turkey’s first popularly-elected president in August or to irreparably dent his image among a religiously conservative class who see him as their champion.
To their eyes, Erdogan has delivered not only a decade of rising living standards, but social justice, promoting Islamic values and fighting for a segment of the population largely excluded from the privileges of state power for much of the past century by a secularist and Western-facing elite.
If that means pugnacity in politics, so be it.
Footage of the melee has emerged bit by bit on a handful of news websites and on social media since Erdogan’s visit to Soma last Wednesday, a small town 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul where more than 300 miners died last week after fire sent carbon monoxide coursing through a coal mine.
The disaster has sparked small-scale protests in cities around the country from demonstrators angry at what they see as the cosiness of Erdogan’s AK Party with tycoons, its failure to ensure the safety of workers, and his insensitivity.
Erdogan has done little to ease the tensions.
He expressed regret for the disaster during his visit to Soma but entered a press conference there armed with a list of mining accidents starting in Victorian-era England, when children worked the pits by candle light and oil lamps, to defend himself against any suggestion of political culpability.
“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time,” he said, reading off examples dating back a century and a half.
Kurucan said he had not even been protesting and had gone to the supermarket to shop when Erdogan’s entourage burst in next to the fruit section. The video footage shows Kurucan in the entrance way seeming to gesture for calm.
“I saw the crowd coming towards me and I ended up face-to-face with the prime minister,” he told Kanal D television.
“At that moment the guards started to push people about and Mr Prime Minister unfortunately could not control his anger and rage and involuntarily gave me a slap,” he said, showing wounds to his arm and neck after the beating by Erdogan’s guards.
AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik said he had watched the footage and concluded there was no visual evidence of the prime minister striking anyone. Top Erdogan adviser Yalcin Akdogan accused “gang members” of attacking his entourage as he tried to meet grieving families.
On the same day, one of Erdogan’s deputy personal assistants, Yusuf Yerkel, was caught in photographs kicking a protester being wrestled to the ground by armed special forces officers.
Yerkel, who has been given a week’s leave, later said he regretted having been unable to control himself in the face of provocations. Celik said it was impossible to tell the whole truth from one photograph.
Whoever threw the first punch, the episodes highlight not only a thuggish side of Turkish politics, but also a growing sense of polarisation in the country at large which Erdogan has exploited to consolidate his support.
“Even if Erdogan survives with limited damage, the disaster has increased the likelihood that, if he is elected president in August, he will head a deeply divided country in which tensions and intermittent eruptions of anti-government protests will become the new norm,” said Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of political risk research firm Teneo Intelligence.
Erdogan’s political rhetoric plays on an underlying schism reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy, banishing Islam from public life, replacing Arabic with Latin script and promoting Western dress and women’s rights.
For many among his more ideological supporters, Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party represent an opportunity to redress the balance and settle scores, a powerful narrative in the country’s conservative Anatolian heartlands.
From weeks of anti-government protest last summer to a corruption scandal around his inner circle early this year, Erdogan has cast challenges to his authority as part of a foreign-backed conspiracy, an assault on Turkey’s core values.
Tempers have flared before.
Parliamentarians threw punches and water bottles during a debate in January about government control over the judiciary. One ruling party MP leapt on a table and launched a flying kick as others wrestled and punched, with document folders and even an iPad flying through the air.
Yet for all the turbulence, Erdogan’s AK Party swept the map in municipal elections on March 30, retaining the main cities Istanbul and Ankara and fuelling his ambition to run for the presidency in three months’ time.
“Go to the ballot box tomorrow and teach them all a lesson,” the blunt-talking premier, son of a poor sea captain hardened by a childhood in Istanbul’s rough Kasimpasa district, said of his opponents on the eve of the March election.
“Let’s give them an Ottoman slap.”
The farcical scenes in Soma at the height of a national tragedy won greater attention on Twitter and YouTube and in the international press than in Turkey’s own cowed media, suggesting this is another storm Erdogan will comfortably ride out.
Even Kurucan seemed somewhat uneasy with the attention.
“There was just one slap. I believe Mr Prime Minister did not do it consciously but involuntarily,” he emphasised.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Hamdi Istanbullu; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Anna Willard