In the last couple of days anti-government protesters, who are angered by the deaths of at least 283 workers in Turkey's worst mining disaster, have clashed with police across the country. In the western city of Izmir, which is about 100km from Soma where the mine explosion occurred on 13 May, police fired tear gas and water cannon at around 20,000 protesters on 15 May. Anger at the disaster has swept across Turkey, where mine explosions and cave-ins are a frequent occurrence. In Ankara, police fired tear gas and water cannons at around 200 protesters. The demonstrators accuse the government and the mining industry of negligence.
Turkey's four biggest unions held a one-day strike, saying workers' lives were being jeopardised to cut costs, and demanding those responsible for the collapse of the coal mine be brought to account. In a joint statement they argue that “hundreds of our workers have been left to die from the very beginning by being forced to work in cruel production processes to achieve maximum profits.”
The ILO in 2012 said Turkey had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world’s third-highest. In the mining sector, 61 people died in 2012, according to the ILO’s latest statistics. Between 2002 and 2012, the death toll at Turkish mines totalled more than 1,000.
Mixed messages of the government
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent mixed messages in response to the tragedy. Cancelling a scheduled trip to Albania, he has called for three days of national mourning and promised an investigation.
But when criticism of the government became more pointed, he moved to the defensive, arguing that “explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world.” He rejected claims of government culpability, saying that “such accidents happen.” By downplaying the disaster as a “typical” labour accident, Erdoğan angered the mourners even more.
When Erdoğan visited Soma, he was forced to take refuge in a shop after a furious reaction from relatives of the victims and the missing. His vehicles were attacked which triggered his advisers and bodyguards to react. Photographs emerged of his adviser Yusuf Erkel kicking a protester in Soma. Defending his actions, Erkel told Hurriyet newspaper: “He attacked and insulted me as well as the prime minister. Should I have stayed silent?” He also issued his apologies “I am sorry for being unable to keep my calm despite all the provocations, insults and attacks that I faced during that day.” His actions caused outrage on national and international social media.
The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said it asked parliament last month to investigate work-related accidents at coal mines in Soma, but the government turned down the request. Turkey's Ministry of Labour and Social Security said the Soma mine had been inspected eight times in the last four years, most recently on 17 March, and was found to comply with safety regulations.
Political pressure on Erdoğan
The disaster has added to the huge political pressure on Erdoğan. Even though his party won over 40% of the votes in the local elections in March, his latest actions including a corruption scandal involving his family and key allies in recent months, the banning of YouTube and Twitter, and the restructuring of the judiciary to his advantage caused international political pressure and national protests.
Erdoğan claims that a “parallel state” is working to overthrow the government. This parallel state, according to AKP, is set up by the followers of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan accuses him of orchestrating the corruption scandal in order to unseat him, as the graft probe ensnared the sons of three former ministers and business people known to be close to the government. The AKP responded with a huge counter-reaction, particularly in the judiciary and the police - where Gülen’s followers are believed to have been prominent - as it aimed to contain the damage.
“Turkey is now further away from accession than it was in 2007”
Meanwhile, the accession talks with the EU have not yield any results. Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, said that Turkey is now further away from accession than it was in 2007.
In the last two years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has changed and has rolled back some reforms that were significant for the EU, according to Swododa. “In the last two years, Erdoğan started to like power too much and attack judicial institutions. This is pulling back some of the reforms we were defending,” he said, thereby voicing his concern over Erdoğan’s recent steps to limit the independence of the judiciary. The Turkish government’s new legislation transferred significant powers over the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) to the Justice Ministry.
By Merel Berkelmans
Sources: Al Jazeera, Reuters, Amnesty Blog, Hurriyet Daily I, Foundation Max van der Stoel I, Foundation Max van der Stoel II, Hurriyet Daily II, Hurriyet Daily III
Photo: AP/Emrah Gurel