Violent protests have erupted in Turkey at the climax of the country’s worst mining accident in which 274 miners have already been declared dead, with an estimated 120 still trapped underground.
The accident threatens to reignite last summer’s nationwide protests and end the brief reprieve won by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with their March victory in local elections.
The explosion occurred on 13 May in the power unit of the Soma mine, about 2 kilometers underground, causing a fire to break out and triggering a power cut that halted operation of the elevators. The fire was contained on 14 May, but not extinguished, with smoke continuing to fill the mine and endangering the trapped miners. Most of the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
While Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul cancelled trips to rush to Soma, and declared three days of mourning for the victims, promising a detailed investigation into the incident, protesters are linking the accident to corruption and neglect.
Protesters surrounded Erdogan’s car in Soma on 14 May, forcing him and his security detail to take cover in a shop near the site, according to the Turkish Hurriyet daily. Protests have broken out in the key cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, with security forces firing tear gas into the crowds.
The mining accident has already reinvigorated the corruption scandal and the investigations that had been largely quashed by Erdogan in the run-up to 30 March local elections, in which the AKP won an unexpectedly significant victory.
The Soma mine is owned by Soma Holding, which is led by Alp Gurkan, whom Turkish media claim had boasted in 2012 about cutting mining cuts significantly.
According to the Daily Sabah, Gurkan noted in a 2012 interview that his company had reduced the cost of coal production from $140 to $24 per ton. “The authorities and the Turkish people now question how the company managed that,” the daily opined.
Today’s Zaman speculated that “the company ignored certain work safety measures in order to cut costs.” The media outlet also noted that “connections between the AK Party and Soma Holding have also come to light,” pointing out that the wife of the mine’s general manager, Ramazan Dogru, was elected on 30 March as a member of the AKP’s Soma Municipal Council.
Bloomberg also reported that Turkey’s parliament had discussed safety conditions at the Soma mine just last month, citing a provincial lawmaker, Ozgur Ozel. According to Ozel, a proposal to create a mine safety commission was backed by opposition parties but rejected by the ruling AKP. Erdogan’s response to this was a denial and a warning to avoid allowing “extremists” and the opposition to politically exploit the mining tragedy.
But it will be exploited, and Erdogan’s reprieve from last summer’s Gezi Park protests and the ongoing corruption scandal appears to be short-lived.
The protests are already showing a nation-wide element, and this time around, the miners who sat on the fence during Gezi Park have a clear motive to join in the calls for Erdogan’s dismissal.
Erdogan’s mishandling of the Gezi Park protests and his defiant and unapologetic attitude is again making a strong showing in this latest tragedy.
According to the Hurriyet Daily, a reporter asked Erdogan whether he thought any government agency could be responsible for a possible safety fault. Erdogan immediately slammed the reporter for not being aware of the “nature of this profession,” implying the risks of it. He then gave examples of worse accidents from 19th century Britain, as well as China and India of the 1970s. He added that a March 2014 inspection of the pit by the Labor Ministry had found no faults.
Turkey’s four labor unions have already called for a nationwide, one-day strike over the mining accident, and their anger is not likely to dissipate any time soon, playing into the hands of Erdogan’s enemies.
In a 14 May statement cited by Reuters, the unions said: "Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the very start by being forced to work in brutal production processes in order to achieve maximum profits."
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