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Anger over disaster increases pressure on Turkish PM

There have been some fairly unedifying media pictures emerging from Turkey over the last few days.

In one television sequence, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to lash out at a man protesting over the mining disaster in Soma.

Mr Erdogan was not too welcome when he arrived in the traumatised community that suffered Turkey's worst mine disaster and claimed the lives of at least 282 workers.

The Turkish leader's confrontation came after he was escorted into a local shop to escape the booing and jostling of crowds demonstrating over his government's perceived failure to implement safety measures in the region's mines.

However, it was Mr Erdogan's aide, Yusuf Yerkel, who really made headlines yesterday, when photographs emerged of him kicking a protester in Soma who was being restrained by two policemen.

All of this does not auger well for Mr Erdogan's government, which has been under considerable pressure these past months.

Mr Erdogan, of all people, will doubtless remember it was the mishandling of another disaster, the 1999 earthquake, that led to the demise of the previous Turkish government in the election following that tragedy.

With Mr Erdogan expected to stand in a presidential election in August, he now faces similar challenges.

While the Turkish leader may not be to everyone's liking, there is no denying his considerable talent as a politician or that the country can boast a booming economy and enormous political progress during the 11-year rule of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Driving across Turkey last year on the first visit for many years I was struck by the vastly improved level of its infrastructure and the countless construction projects under way.

In part, this boom means Mr Erdogan has his supporters, but his detractors have become increasingly vociferous and made their presence felt.

It was not so long ago people took to the streets during the so-called Gezi Park protests when thousands demonstrated against plans to build a shopping centre at the site of one of Istanbul's most symbolic city parks.

Mr Erdogan does not suffer dissent easily, as the police crackdown on those protests made clear. Neither does he like anyone poking their nose into state institutions and practices.

Investigations into corruption allegations with which he was linked were, by and large, quashed. When frustrated Turks took to social media to find out more, Mr Erdogan's response was to shut down access to YouTube and Twitter. Only the orders of a constitutional court made him think again.

Mr Erdogan appears to believe his considerable electoral support gives him the mandate for such moves. Those who took to the streets of Istanbul against him during the Gezi Park protests he characterised as a whinging urban elite, conspiratorially hell-bent on removing those of a more conservative disposition from the Anatolian heartland that he has surrounded himself with in Ankara's corridors of power.

Putting aside whether his description of the Istanbul's park protestors as being an "urban elite" is accurate or not, Mr Erdogan's fractious handling of the Soma mine disaster has hit the very working class, conservative community that makes up the core of his supporter base.

Yesterday, four of Turkey's labour unions called for a national one-day strike, furious at what they see as a sharp deterioration in working conditions since formerly state-run mines, including the one in Soma, were leased to private firms.

"Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the very start by being forced to work in brutal production processes to achieve maximum profits," a statement from the unions pointed out.

Here lies the danger for Mr Erdogan. In the past, protests against specific aspects of his rule and policy often broadened very quickly, and one can only guess at the extent of the political challenges he would face should some serious anti-government alliance emerge that unites traditionally opposing sections of Turkish society.

It is worth bearing in mind that over the past year Mr Erdogan has weathered mass protests and corruption scandals, with his AKP Party dominating local polls in March despite substantial political turbulence.

Nevertheless, some analysts are convinced the mining tragedy could spark a resurgence of serious protests and any response from the Turkish leader will most likely be out of touch with the political climate that surrounds him.

Critics also point out that any leader genuinely committed to developing democracy in their country would prioritise this before personal political ambition and Mr Erdogan is not of that ilk.

With his deepening authoritarian streak, Mr Erdogan will regard protests in the wake of the Soma mine tragedy as a serious test of his reputation.

Yesterday, the Turkish government was playing down the bad headlines and images that have emerged from Soma. On the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, meanwhile, protesters were facing down police water cannons and chanting "the fires of Soma will burn the AKP." The days ahead are set to be another tough test for Mr Erdogan's party.

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