Mine blast reveals Erdogan as his own worst enemy

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's instincts deserted him when it came to Turkey's worst mining disaster, which happened in his political heartland, writes Joseph Dana.

The worst mining disaster in Turkey’s history reveals a delicate power play at the heart of Turkish politics. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist AK Party has been politically dominant for the past 10 years, is now his own worst enemy as the country’s main opposition remains hopelessly listless.

While Mr Erdogan has deftly negotiated one political crisis after another recently, his handling of the accident threatens to unify the nation against him. The accident occurred in the coal-producing town of Soma in western Turkey and left more than 300 dead after a fire broke out nearly 2,100 metres underground on Tuesday.

As Turkey went into a state of national mourning on Wednesday, Mr Erdogan rushed to Soma only to be greeted by angry protesters calling on his government to step down. In an afternoon of thoughtless remarks and defensive posturing over Turkey’s safety record, Mr Erdogan managed to wipe away much of the victory sentiment enjoyed by AK Party since it secured crucial wins across the country in April’s local elections.

When asked about mining safety in Turkey, Mr Erdogan went on the defensive. “Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he said, brushing away criticism that his government could have done more to promote better safety practices in the vital industry. To bolster his claim, he provided examples of mining accidents from the West, most of which occurred in the 19th century.

Then things got ugly. Videos reportedly showing the prime minister slapping a mourner spread like wildfire on the internet. Mr Erdogan was also caught on video telling a mourning protester that “what is done, is done [in the Soma mine]. It’s God’s providence. If you boo the prime minister of this country, you get slapped.”

In the course of the eventful day, photos emerged of one of Mr Erdogan’s aides, Yusuf Yerkel, kicking a protester who was being held down by security forces. The image has come to represent the standoff between the prime minister and the country.

The familiar pattern of street protest and calls on the government to resign consume Turkey at the moment. Unlike previous protests, composed of easily dismissible leftist groups, Mr Erdogan’s handling of the Soma tragedy brought large sections of society to the streets. In Soma itself, which the AK Party won in the recent local elections, angry residents faced tear gas and water cannons. Turkish security forces set up checkpoints and attempted to limit the number of journalists reporting on the events.

Despite a corruption scandal, a sluggish economy and severe international criticism over the rule of law in Turkey, Mr Erdogan appeared to be strengthening his grip on power before the mining tragedy. Aside from clear AK Party victories in key urban centres like Istanbul and Ankara in the local elections, the prime minister neutralised anti-government protesters on May Day before they could retake the streets of Istanbul. The only thing left for Mr Erdogan appeared to be the office of president, up for grabs later this summer in the country’s first direct vote for the presidency.

Turkey is famously devoid of oil and gas resources. In order to sustain the impressive economic growth that the country has experienced over the past 10 years, the Turkish government estimates that the country will need to double its energy infrastructure in the next 10 years.

The Turkish government relies heavily on the coal sector for internal consumption and in recent years has allowed massive privatisation of coal mines throughout the country. As a result, cost-cutting measures put in place by the private sector have translated to a relaxation of safety standards. However, Mr Erdogan’s AK Party hasn’t countered the measures with stricter government oversight.

Last year, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) submitted a motion in parliament to review safety conditions in the Soma mine. The motion was dismissed with votes from the AK Party just two weeks ago.

In spite of the genuine anger towards the government, the Soma tragedy is yet another reminder that Turkey lacks an effective political opposition. A political culture has taken hold over the past year in which the ruling party, in its never-ending quest for rapid neoliberal expansion of the Turkish economy and the maintenance of its own political power, is all too easily swayed by short-term thinking and little opposition. The privatisation of Turkish coal mines resulting in lax enforcement of safety standards is the latest tragic reminder of this guiding principle in Turkey.

When faced with the Soma tragedy, Mr Erdogan proved unable to admit that the dismal safety situation in Turkish mines was a result of mistakes made by his government. Rather than craft a careful admission of responsibility and guide the nation at a time of mourning, he chose to go on the offensive. This miscalculation could provide the much needed spark for a new opposition united against the AK Party and the start of a mass movement against Mr Erdogan himself.

The crassness of Mr Erdogan’s reaction in Soma underlines a sad truism in the current Turkish political climate. The only real force that can challenge the ruling AK Party’s political dominance is the AK Party itself with the prime minister as the main culprit. Having established an unshakable base and weathered serious challenges to his rule, Mr Erdogan now only has himself to battle for the future dominance of Turkish politics.

Joseph Dana is a correspondent for Monocle magazine and a regular contributor to The National

On Twitter: @ibnezra

Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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