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Erdogan’s ‘slap-for-boo’ regime

For Turks, a good government is the one that works hard. This is why Erdogan always wins

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Previous Turkish governments had long become a byword for inertia. For Turks, a good government is the one that works hard. This is why Erdogan always wins.

This man, no matter how despotic he is, works tooth and nail, days and nights to achieve his dreams. He phones a media boss to personally complain about a news report about health on page 23, drafts an election campaign strategy for a football club chairmanship and gives orders to take down a statue he thinks is ugly. Erdogan’s workaholic character had an immense impact on people who consider him an idol, pushing the entire government to work hard on almost every matter. This has kept the government very popular for more than a decade.

Weary of corrupted governments that had done nothing to improve Turkey’s ailing infrastructure or develop the nation in 1990s, people considered the advent of Erdogan’s party a windfall from heaven. He knew what Turks liked the most: work, work and work. One example from the past week is a strong case in point: Taner Yıldız, the Turkish energy minister, who should have been under fire over the death of 301 coal miners in Soma, is being praised by the pro-government media for “eating and sleeping little” while he supervised the rescue operations. In fact, one pro-government newspaper, Star, claimed that he had reached the “zenith of manhood”. The media’s polishing of the energy minister’s image is obviously a campaign to get the government off the hook in the blame-game for the Soma mining disaster. They know what the people love and value: to see someone working hard.

Erdogan went ballistic against the protesters, allegedly slapping an angry miner

Mahir Zeynalov

Amid a recent corruption scandal, the famous phrase “they are stealing but also working” has become an oft-cited idiom to describe the logic behind the support of those who believed that the ruling officials are corrupt. Working hard, as we have witnessed in Turkey, has the power to erase every type of immoral behavior. A Muslim way of thinking? Not at all.

Eroding support

The recent corruption scandal and lavish lifestyle of Erdogan and his family are now eating away an image that portrayed Erdogan as “the man of the people.” The tragic mining disaster last week in Soma significantly tarnished Erdogan and his government’s reputation. His government failed to adequately handle the crisis and made a series of mistakes that even infuriated pro-government folks.

The hardworking image of Erdogan came to a grind in Soma, where austere lifestyle of coal miners was compared with the luxurious lives of the bureaucrats. The prime minister downplayed the accident by claiming that it is a “typical incident,” providing similar tragedies from Europe in 1860s, and arguing that the coal mining company met all standards in recent government inspections.

Instead of offering an apology, expressing grief and vowing to bring those responsible to account, Erdogan went ballistic against the protesters, allegedly slapping an angry miner while telling another protester that “if you boo the prime minister, you will get a slap.” He basically summarized the character of his regime. In another outrageous incident, one of his advisors kicked a protester that made headlines around the world (Turkey’s soft power - Erdogan style). The man refused to apologize and instead claimed that he was provoked. TV networks broadcast round-the-clock the simple life of little-paid coal miners in stark contrast to the lavish lifestyle of arrogant government officials.

Defense reflex

One reason why the government failed so miserably in the past week is it became a victim of its own weapon – identity politics. To consolidate his electorate in the past year, Erdogan described every development in the nation as a ploy targeting him and created an illusion among public that the criticizing the government is tantamount to treason to the homeland. His ruling AKP has become an identity of government supporters. Criticizing the government meant criticizing its supporters, hence the people. Critics, today, have hard time in explaining to the public that the government should be open to criticism and that criticizing the authorities is not necessarily an ill-intentioned behavior.

Erdogan, his lawmakers and his supporters absorbed this mentality so deeply that they regard any kind of criticism as an existential threat and a malicious assault. This unnecessary “defense reflex” made Erdogan talk nonsense about the mining disaster and will further push him to make mistakes in the future. Politics through identity was a dirty war tactic by Erdogan and he will eventually fall prey to his own trap. This is the fate of all despots.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.