The Soma mining disaster: A tragedy foretold

By: Pinar Tank, PRIO.

As the rescue operation into Turkey´s worst industrial accident came to end on Saturday, 17 May, the number of dead was confirmed at 301 (of 787) with scores still unaccounted for. An explosion due to a faulty transformer is the official reason behind the worst mining accident in Turkey´s history with poor safety standards a significant contributing factor. Behind the grief and ensuing anger, there is a sense that this was a tragedy that could have been prevented. Only two weeks previously, the AKP government rejected a motion by the opposition Republican People´s Party (with the support of other parties in Parliament) to look into safety in the mining industry. Turkey´s record on mining safety is poor and according to the Turkish Statistical Institute, there were over 13 000 work place incidents in 2013 alone.

The accident reinforces criticisms by opponents of the regime of the present Turkish economic model: aggressive market liberalism coupled with a lack of transparency and accountability, popularly referred to as “crony capitalism”. Transparency International simply notes that Turkey is plagued with “rampant corruption” while the International Labor Organization ranked Turkey third worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012.

This has resulted in lethal consequences for the people of Soma where entire families are now left without a breadwinner. The mine, which was privatized in 2005, is owned by Soma Holding, now accused of criminal negligence. But they are not the only instance of accountability. According to the Turkish press, the ownership structure in the mining industry as a result of a 2003 law on “service procurement” makes Soma Holding a subcontractor to the state owned Turkish Coal Enterprises (TKİ), placing responsibility for the accident equally on the state. Furthermore, the government´s changes to mining laws in 2004 allows mining licenses to be granted by approval of the prime minister without a tender (Today´s Zaman, 19 May 2014).

More particularly, there are speculations that the company´s connections with the ruling party have thwarted proper safety inspections: Melike Doğru the general manager´s wife is on Soma Holding´s board of directors as well as serving as an AKP politician in Manisa. This should not in itself be problematic but given Turkey´s corruption challenges, it raises uncomfortable questions. Other safety deficiencies have been openly admitted. As an example, Ali Gürkan, the company owner, divulged in a press conference that there was no refuge chamber for workers to flee, while stating that this was not a legal obligation and thereby denying negligence. Other factors are more difficult to explain away: Expert reports state that warning indications, such as a rise in temperature and levels of carbon monoxide in the days prior to the accident, were ignored. Most critically, firefighters were called to the scene a full hour after the blaze started while the miners’ gas masks were only functional for 45 minutes. Over the weekend both Can Gürkan, the company CEO (and son of the owner) and the general manager Ramazan Doğru were arrested, along with 25 others who were detained and charged with causing multiple deaths. No politicians have offered their resignations as a consequence of the tragedy.

Disasters – whether natural or man-made – are an unwelcome test for governments, particularly those whose reputation is based on popularist roots. The outpouring of grief following the accident was a moment of national crisis in need of a leader to unite the people and alleviate their sense of loss; in fact, an opportunity in which Erdoğan´s oratory skills and appeal to the “common man” should have provided reassurance to the people of Soma. Yet, it was a moment in which the prime minister, and his government, failed unequivocally.

Instead, the AKP´s dismissive and arrogant response shocked even his own followers, and enraged his opponents. At an initial press conference, Erdoğan drew comparisons to mining practices in present day Turkey and Victorian England in an effort to illustrate the “occupational hazard” implicit in mine work. He further attempted to provide solace to the families in religious terms: The accident was due to fate, or “kismet”. A former AKP Labour Minister, in an extraordinarily insensitive statement, offered his condolences by stating that the miners, who had suffocated from noxious fumes, had died “beautiful deaths”. The absolute nadir however came when both Erdoğan and his special adviser Yusuf Yerkel were photographed in two separate incidents allegedly assaulting protesters. Despite the latter photograph going viral, there have been no consequences for Yerkel. Instead, he was given a week´s sick leave due to the injuries he sustained when kicking a miner held down by special forces police.

Rather than joining the people in mourning the miners, the government response has been defensive. Nationwide protests have been met with the usual volley of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons as well as a number of arrests, including that of several lawyers.

The government´s inexplicably inappropriate response to the tragedy has stunned outside observers (and a great many Turks). Given the AKP´s handling of the Gezi park protests, one may wonder, why the surprise? However, there are important distinctions between Gezi and Soma, both with regard to the crisis and its potential impact. The demonstrators in Gezi park, their political heterogeneity notwithstanding, were united in their opposition to the AKP´s authoritarianism and to a large extent, ideologically motivated. Those who first took to the streets in Soma were frustrated by the government´s lackadaisical attitude to safety in the mining industry and its refusal to accept responsibility for the tragedy. Furthermore, among those shouting angry slogans for the prime minister´s resignation were the very people the AKP consider their own – traditional, conservative voters. One would be hard pressed to refer to these protesters as “agents of foreign governments” as was the case with the Gezi park opposition. (But even among the Soma protestors there were those who both expressed their disappointment with the government while proclaiming that Turkey could only move forward with the AKP – a damning judgment on the opposition). Finally, whereas the Gezi park protests had little effect on the local elections in March 2014, it is likely that the Soma tragedy will impact the presidential election in August in which Erdoğan is expected to run. The AKP´s follow-up of the crisis in the next few months will be critical.

The AKP response to the Soma tragedy has reinforced the image of an omnipotent state with little respect for its citizens. One particular moment during the rescue operation captured the public imagination: As an injured miner wasescorted off onto a waiting ambulence, he paused before getting onto the stretcher, saying to ambulence personnel “Let me take off my boots, the stretcher may get dirty”. This humble image of concern for others contrasted starkly with the government´s arrogant response and led to a widely shared social media image of a dirty boot carrying the following declaration: “Your boots are all that are clean in this country”.