Mass Protests, Strikes in Turkey over Erdogan’s Neoliberal Response to Miner Deaths

(By Juan Cole)

Turkey’s Public Workers Union Confederation announced a one-day strike to demand better worker safety and political protests have broken out Friday in a number of Turkish cities over deaths of nearly 300 miners. Thousands protested in the Mediterranean port of Izmir, for instance.

The tragic deaths at a coal mine in Soma southwest of Istanbul have shaken the Turkish nation and become a political fiasco for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who is increasingly the Chris Christie of Turkish politics minus the girth, becoming known for a rudeness that borders on callousness and a no-nonsense devotion to business interests over those of ordinary citizens.

An electrical unit at the mine blew up and started a fire, killing the workers with carbon monoxide poisoning. Nearly 800 miners were in the mine. Some 120 are still trapped below.

The industrial accident needn’t have become a political issue, but it was grossly mishandled by PM Erdogan, who has been behaving increasingly erratically for the past year. He went to Soma on Wednesday and instead of weeping for the dead and showing solidarity, gave a weird speech in which he seemed embarrassed that such a thing could have happened in Turkey. He insisted that such industrial accidents are common in the US and Europe, and even pulled out statistics on mine collapses in Victorian England. He said such tragedies were “ordinary things” that “happen all the time.”

The outraged mourners charged the stage and Erdogan and his entourage had to take refuge in a nearby supermarket. One of his aides was caught on video kicking a mourner turned protester. Erdogan himself slapped and knocked down a man in the supermarket, though that may not have been intentional. But then he also appears to have slapped a young woman there. The image of the aid kicking the mourner went viral, despite Erdogan’s attempts to close down social media in Turkey (youth use VPN and other workarounds).

Erdogan’s callousness may have derived in part from his closeness to the Turkish business community. The mine had fairly recently been privatized, and workers insist that safety standards declined steeply once it was in private hands. Some of the anger toward Erdogan comes from a resentment of Neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation.

In the past year, Erdogan has faced a youth movement upset about his government’s dedication to helping real estate developers put malls in every possible available space. And his long-time partners on the religious Right, the Gulen movement, have turned on him and used their access to gather and release embarrassing recordings suggesting deep corruption in the Erdogan inner circle. These allegations are damaging because Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party made its reputation by being squeaky clean and actually providing services. The party has not mainly functioned as a vehicle for political Islam, though Erdogan and other leaders of it increasingly pepper their speeches with slogans of the Muslim religious right. But it has been a very pro-business party, with provincial entrepreneurs among its major constituencies.

Neither engaged students nor angered union workers are likely to stand in the way of Erdogan’s election as president this summer, though if he goes on the rest of the campaign season as he did on Wednesday and Thursday, the public might well turn against him.

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Related video:

Euronews: ‘Erdogan defends Turkey’s mine safety record ‘

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8 Responses

  1. Needn’t have become a political issue? Well you are wrong on that point. The opposition party CHP tried to bring the issue to the parliament last year and it was refused by government MPs.

    It is EXACTLY what politics should be about. This is about extreme exploitation and wild capitalism.

    But the response is not only neo-liberal. It shows the primitiveness of Turkish political culture. In what country do you see a PM punching people in the face after a mining disaster distresses a town?

  2. This raises the serious question of just what has happened to Erdogan? For years he was a model of Islamic political moderation and governmental success. Suddenly, it seems, everything in Turkey is going off the rails. Did all this really coincide with the break with Israel, or am I just suffering from a distorted memory? There is no question that either Erdogan has had a dramatic change or the coverage of him has.

  3. I can see why he had to take Victorian England statistics. The worst disaster in the UK was the Tanchwa Senghennydd in 1913 and bares alot of resemblances to the Soma disaster he wouldn’t want to bring that one up.

  4. The thing about Turkey, is that viewed through the lens of comparative politics it can stand-in as a caricature for other, more advanced (?), countries. I wouldn’t call it’s political leadership more “primitive” although you could also make that case, but in practical administration of things like this, simply less polished and more prone to show their mien.

    There is a whole class of people, whose occupations cut across society, only some of whom are politicians. But when they get together, speaking in candor with one another, I doubt their underlying attitudes vary much from that of Tayyip Bey. Throw in that joker who owns the Los Angeles basketball franchise and the self-righteous rancher who recently made news, and you get a rather clear, albeit disturbing picture.

  5. According to a 2012 AFL-CIO report, 4,628 workers were killed on the job in the United States, and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases, resulting in a loss of 150 workers each day from hazardous working conditions.

    link to aflcio.org

    According to the US State Department there were 10 US citizens deaths worldwide in 2012 due to terrorism.

    link to state.gov

    Could someone please explain why the US government spends trillions to keep Americans “safe” from terrorism, but does little or nothing to provide US workers safe and healthy working conditions?

    Is terrorism or capitalism the biggest threat to American workers’ safety and security?

  6. Moving to Turkey where workers protest these outrages?

    Don’t get me wrong. I think Americans are too docile. Sure. But at last big mining disaster the families of dead American miners got about 1.5 million dollars each.

    In Turkey families will get around 500 dollars per month as compensation. Turkey is cheaper but believe me that is not a lot of money for some of the widows who need to bring up their kids etc…

    Oh and Erdogan’s words to a protester running away was “Come back where are you going you semen (son of ) of Israelites?”

    I’m surprised he hasn’t blamed the mining disaster on US or Israel yet…

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