* PM's fracas with protesters caught on mobile phones
* Confrontation came as town mourned mining disaster
* Tragedy failed to unite amid polarised political climate
(Adds man later saying he was slapped by body guard, not
By Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL, May 18 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."
"Come here and jeer at me!" he dares another demonstrator in
a separate clip before his entourage forces its way into a
supermarket. Grainy footage from another phone, published by the
Sol news website, appears to show him 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, initially told a Turkish television
station that Erdogan had been unable to control himself in the
heat of the moment and had given him an "involuntary slap".
But he later said in an interview with a local broadcaster
that he had been mistaken, and that the prime minister had in
fact been trying to shield him from the body guards, CNN Turk
and other media reports said on Sunday.
Erdogan's aides denied he struck anyone, but the episode 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.
"ANGER AND RAGE"
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 said in the initial
interview with Kanal D television last week.
"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 the 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
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 and Cynthia