by Derek Davison
An explosion at a coal mine in Turkey on May 13 has generated an outpouring of public anger and concern over the Turkish government’s mine safety record. The response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his aides to that outpouring may be doing significant damage to his hopes of being elected president in elections scheduled for August 10.
The mine, which is located in the town of Soma, roughly 120 km northeast of Izmir, exploded Tuesday, likely due to an electrical fault, killing and trapping hundreds of mine workers underground. Initial estimates that 17 miners were killed and up to 300 were trapped by the explosion have been updated; more recent figures put the death toll at 282, with another 150 miners still unaccounted for. If those figures hold up, the Soma explosion would surpass a 1992 gas explosion in Zonguldak (on the Black Sea) that killed almost 270 people, which had been Turkey’s deadliest mining accident to date. Mining accidents are a frequent occurrence in Turkey; the country’s Mine Workers Union counted 25,655 accidents in Turkish mines from 2000-2009, which killed 63 and injured 26,324.
For Erdogan, less than three months away from the presidential election, the fallout from the disaster itself may be eclipsed by the series of missteps that have characterized his government’s response. Crowds of protesters in the larger cities were attacked, as last year’s Taksim Square protesters had been attacked, by government forces wielding tear gas and water cannons. His visit to Soma was punctuated by remarks that were seen as insensitive, in which he attempted to rebut criticism of Turkey’s privatization program by saying that coal mining accidents are “normal” and by comparing Tuesday’s explosion to coal mining accidents in 19th century Britain and mid-20th century China and Japan. Erdogan commented that “workers get into the profession [mining] knowing that these kinds of incidents may occur.”
Even more damaging for Erdogan’s image is a recently published photograph of his deputy chief of staff, Yusuf Yerkel, appearing to kick a protester who had already been restrained by police. Witnesses claimed Yerkel kicked the man “three or four times.” The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) seized on a report that Erdogan himself punched a protester in a supermarket in Soma, but the video purporting to show the incident is indeterminate. The CHP has also accused Erdogan of ignoring a request its legislators made in late April to conduct an investigation into safety conditions at the Soma mine, which if true (and it appears to be) could further damage Erdogan’s public standing. The escalating political tension is being blamed for a decline in the value of the Turkish Lira, which had been gaining value but looked to be headed for a significant drop by Thursday.
The reaction of the public and Turkey’s unions to the Soma accident has been swift. Several trade unions across the country held a one day strike on May 15 to protest mine privatization, which they blame for lowered safety standards and more dangerous working conditions for mine workers (the Soma mine was privatized in 2005). Protesters took to the streets of some of Turkey’s largest cities on May 14 and again on May 15, including an estimated 20,000 people in Izmir as well as thousands who marched on the Turkish Labor Ministry in Ankara and crowds that attempted to march into Taksim Square in Istanbul, where the large anti-government “Gezi Park” protests were held last year. When Erdogan himself visited Soma on May 14, he was greeted by a crowd of people kicking his car and shouting words like “thief” and “murderer.” Elsewhere in the town, protesters stormed local government offices, chanting “Erdogan must resign!”
Turkey’s unique position as a NATO member and as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East makes it a critical US ally, and its internal politics have tremendous significance for American foreign policy. US-Turkey relations have been steadily worsening. US President Barack Obama had consulted Erdogan frequently on Middle East matters, particularly during the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, but he was mildly critical of Erdogan’s violent response to the Gezi Park protests in July of 2013, and the two have not communicated much since. Erdogan has suggested that US-based “groups” were partly behind the Gezi Park movement, a statement that the US State Department recently dismissed as “ridiculous.” The US has, however, has been reluctant to criticize Erdogan too heavily, preferring stability in its relations with Turkey at a time of ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and sensitive nuclear talks with Iran.
But even on regional matters, Turkey and the US are moving apart. In particular, the two governments are at odds over Syria, where Erdogan has been willing to support any opposition to Bashar al-Assad, allegedly including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front (although there are signs that Turkey is reevaluating this policy), while the US has been firmly opposed to providing aid that could benefit the more extreme elements of the fragmented Syrian opposition. Erdogan, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, has also been critical of America’s refusal to condemn the July 2013 Egyptian coup that toppled its elected Brotherhood government. Recent allegations that some of Erodgan’s closest allies have been involved in a money laundering program that has funneled billions of dollars to Iran in violation of international sanctions are also causing tension in the US-Turkey relationship.
While recent opinion polling is hard to come by, the results of last month’s municipal elections, a clear victory for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, seem to indicate that Erdogan retains considerable popular support. It is unlikely that the Soma incident and the miscues that have followed will be enough to derail his presidential campaign, but any sign of electoral weakness on Erdogan’s part could have major ramifications for US policy throughout the region.