Turkish mine explosion: Are 300 lives enough to make Recep Tayyip Erdogan's admirers think again?

Cutting corners in the drive for cheap coal meant last week's disaster was an accident waiting to happen
  • @polblonde

Less than three weeks ago, a Turkish opposition MP got up to demand a parliamentary investigation into safety measures at a coal mine in his constituency. "We are sick of going to the funerals of miners," declared Ozgur Ozel, saying he had been inundated with complaints about safety conditions at the pit. Nonsense, replied a deputy from the ruling AK party, claiming that the country's mines were safer than many elsewhere in the world. In words which should come back to haunt the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK party deputy added that, "God willing", nothing would happen at the mine, "not even a nosebleed".

What happened at the Soma mine last week could hardly be described as a nosebleed. Around 300 miners died after an underground explosion, leading to hellish scenes as soot-blackened corpses were brought out of the pit. A visit to Soma by the Prime Minister made matters worse as members of his entourage scuffled with protesters, who surrounded and kicked his car. An amateur video appeared to show Mr Erdogan himself throwing a punch, while one of his aides, dressed in a sharp suit and tie, was photographed kicking a protester who had already been restrained by Special Forces.

Last week's fatalities are a tragedy on a vast scale, even for a country that has the worst mining record in Europe. But they are also a new development in Turkey's protracted political crisis, which has seen the Islamist AK party survive in spite of a year of responding to popular protests with brute force. The use of tear gas and water cannon on demonstrators in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir did not dent Mr Erdogan's popularity in recent elections. But his heartless response to the Soma fatalities – reeling off a list of mining disasters in other countries to prove that they are normal events – exposes what could be a fatal weakness in his party's platform.

The AK party wins elections with an offer that combines conservative religious values with rapid economic growth. Mr Erdogan is anti-abortion, anti-equality and on record as saying that he would like Turkish women to have five children. Under his premiership, Turkey's record on free expression has reverted to the bad old days. The governing body for broadcasting recently issued a warning to a TV discussion programme after one of the guests, the playwright Pinar Kur, offered her personal opinion that wearing the headscarf is reactionary. Many Turks seem able to live with Mr Erdogan's assaults on traditional media but threats against social networking sites are another matter.

Earlier this year, he accused opponents of faking a recording of a phone conversation, posted on YouTube, which purportedly revealed him talking to his son about moving large sums of money to avoid a corruption investigation. Mr Erdogan claimed the conversation was a "montage" and threatened to ban YouTube and Facebook. He was rebuked by Turkey's President, Abdullah Gul, but went ahead with bans on YouTube and Twitter. Both have been lifted by the courts, exposing the Prime Minister to widespread ridicule.

None of these assaults on individual liberty has been enough to inflict lasting damage on Mr Erdogan among traditionally minded voters. The Soma disaster is different, not least because it happened in a region where support for the AK party is much more solid. Not just that: an increasing dependence on coal, both locally mined and imported, is at the heart of Turkey's economic success. The country's energy demands are expected to double over the next decade, and in the past five years it has dramatically increased its dependence on coal-fired power stations.

This energy strategy has been accompanied by an aggressive programme of privatisation, with the Soma mine supposedly a showpiece of the benefits of private ownership. The mine was bought from the state by a company called Soma Holding, which is one of Turkey's biggest coal producers. Two years ago, its owner, Alp Gurkan, boasted in an interview with the newspaper Cumhuriyet that he had managed to reduce the cost of mining coal from $130-$140 to just under $24 per ton "thanks to the operation methods of the private sector". Survivors of last week's disaster are suggesting that those "operation methods" included cutting corners on safety.

That proposition seems to be borne out by a report which warned of dangers in the Soma mine four years ago. Published by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers, it amounts to something close to a prediction of last week's tragedy. The report warns that high levels of methane make the mine "intolerant" of mistakes; it highlights both the absence of a warning system for dangerous gases and a lack of escape routes. It criticises the ventilation and points out that "workers can't be evacuated … urgently and safely".

This puts a rather different complexion on Mr Erdogan's ham-fisted attempt to play down the significance of the Soma tragedy. The AK party has run the country since 2002 and its drive to produce more coal has been accompanied by one fatal mining accident after another. Even before the latest disaster, 1,308 Turkish miners had been killed since 2000; 13,000 were involved in accidents last year alone, accounting for more than one in 10 workplace injuries.

The AK party has calculated that it can get away with flagrant attacks on students, journalists, feminists, intellectuals and green activists. Mr Erdogan does not seem to care, either, about the impact of his bullying manner on Turkey's relations with the European Union. But in a country divided by education, religion and wealth, he desperately needs working-class votes. The lives of 300 miners may strike his supporters as too high a price to pay for Turkey's breakneck economic expansion.

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