Turkey mine explosion: This disaster deals another blow to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian rule

Every development in Turkey over the last year has added to the country’s polarisation. The latest event to do so is the disaster at the coalmine at Soma, where 282 miners are known to have died and another 142 are still unaccounted for.

When the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Soma on Wednesday he was forced to take a refuge in a supermarket as crowds shouted that he was a thief and liar. One of his aides was photographed kicking a protester who was on the ground. There have been demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara blaming the government for failing to do enough to prevent the accident. One banner carried by demonstrators read: “It’s not an accident, it’s murder.”

All this happened just as Mr Erdogan was expected to announce his candidacy for the presidential election in August. The opposition points to his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) opposition to tougher safety regulations in mines. As recently as two weeks ago it voted down a proposal in parliament for an investigation into accidents in mines at Soma.

Mr Erdogan was always going to carry some of the blame for the disaster because his party has been in power since 2002 and because it is notorious for its cosy relations with construction and mining companies. But he added to the odium by making a speech on a visit to Soma last week when he mixed his regrets for the disaster with remarks about the inevitability of heavy loss of life in coal mining round the world. “These are normal things,” he said.

 

This attitude is not cutting much ice with Turkish miners. Erkan Akay, a local opposition MP, says that a worker in Turkey is 8.5 times more likely to die in an accident than a worker in the EU. In the mining sector the International Labour Organisation says that Turkey has the worst record in Europe and the third worst in the world.

How far is this going to damage Mr Erdogan politically? Two themes have emerged in Turkish politics over the last year. There has been a stream of political scandals. At the same time, Mr Erdogan and the AKP retain strong support as shown by their triumph in the 30 March local elections when the AKP won 42.8 per cent of the vote while the opposition remains divided and unable, so far, to choose a presidential candidate.

None of this is very new. Whenever there has been an election rather than a military coup to decide who holds power in Turkey it is the centre right that has won with a moderate Islamic programme. Mr Erdogan has also delivered on economic development that may be rickety at present, but has vastly increased living standards. On vital issues like relations between the state and its Kurdish population, Mr Erdogan and the AKP are the only ones with the political strength to negotiate a long-term agreement.

Like Tony Blair in Britain after winning his third general election, Mr Erdogan has been at the top long enough to acquire a long list of opponents, including former allies, who have little in common except opposition to the Prime Minister. There were the demonstrations over property development in Istanbul last year that exploded into protests across the country. Well-attested accusations of ministerial corruption led to a purge of the police and judiciary. Foreign envoys complained that details of confidential meetings were leaked.

Mr Erdogan has behaved as if victory at the polls gave him the right and ability to monopolise power. He has successfully chipped away at the security services, army and judiciary to establish his over-riding authority, but this means he is blamed for anything going wrong such as the Soma mine disaster. 

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