By Ron Margulies in Istanbul
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Political crisis after Turkish mining disaster

This article is over 7 years, 8 months old
Issue 2403

People carry the coffins of the miners to the cemetery after a mining disaster on 15 May in Soma, Turkey

The number of miners still missing after the disaster in Turkey remains unknown. So far 283 miners have died and the number continues to rise. The government has said that 147 are still in the mine. But even these tragic figures do not add up. That leaves 288 miners unaccounted for, given that the total number of workers in the mine is said to have been 787.

The crisis the disaster sparked looks like becoming the final nail in the coffin of an increasingly authoritarian, neo-liberal government which has lurched from one crisis to the next in the past year.

Whatever the exact cause, the fundamental reason for the disaster is clear—privatisation and the ruthless push for profits by a private company. The Soma mine was privatised and bought by Soma Holding Co in 2005.

The company’s owner, Alp Gürkan, has become one of the biggest names in the coal industry in less than ten years. The company has grown massively in that time, selling all the coal it produces to the state.

The boss has poured much of his profits into the construction business, building luxury residences in Istanbul. In one of his buildings, one of the tallest in Istanbul, called the Spine, apartments have been sold for £2.4 million. The sort of money a Soma miner—or any other Turkish worker—would not make in a whole lifetime of working underground.

The Soma Holding boss is close to the government. Anger and outrage about the disaster has been directed straight at prime minister Recep Erdogan and his government.

There have been protests and demonstrations across the country in an unprecedented show of solidarity with the miners and their families. There were strikes in sympathy with the miners and against the government both in Turkey’s main coal-mining area of Zonguldak and in other large workplaces.

The announcement of three days of national mourning by the government only made people angrier.

Visiting the town of Soma, the prime minister was caught in the middle of protesting crowds and had to take refuge in a supermarket. There, he slapped and shouted at a man who he mistook for a protester. The incident enraged everyone. The view that Erdogan is losing it has now become widespread.

On the same day, a prime ministerial adviser was caught on televison kicking a protester who was being held by police.

Only a year ago, Erdogan and his government appeared to have everything going for them. They were riding high in the polls and the Prime Minister was making plans for as far ahead as 2023.

Then the Gezi park protests broke out. The prime minister’s response, in addition to using extreme police brutality, was to claim that sinister domestic and international forces were out to overthrow the government. This line was successful in convincing and consolidating the government’s voter base.

Then, in December last year, revelations of ministerial corruption shook the government. This time, Erdogan claimed that followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric who lives in the US, were trying to overthrow him. Again, this seemed to work with his core support.

Having got more than 40 percent of the vote in local elections at the end of March, Erdogan thought he was out of the woods. There is a presidential election coming up this summer, and Erdogan was planning to become president, leaving a trusted lieutenant behind as party leader and prime minister.

These plans are now in tatters. There are no sinister forces he can blame this time. It may well be that this is the beginning of the end for his government.


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