Erdoğan’s self defence over Soma disaster was badly misjudged

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Yesterday in the devastated town of Soma, a crowd of angry mourners mobbed the Turkish Prime Minister’s convoy as it drove slowly through the streets. Boos and jeers threatened to drown out the Prime Minister’s words as he addressed the families of those who died in the blast. When he attempted – briefly – to walk amongst the crowds, their hostile reaction forced his anxious bodyguards to hustle him into a nearby supermarket, where he became embroiled in a scuffle. This was a far cry from the welcoming flowers, smiles and cheers that Tayyip Erdoğan usually receives on official visits.

The Prime Minister has badly misjudged the Soma disaster by delivering an insensitive speech bristling with self-defense. Telling the relatives of dead and dying miners that “these types of incidents are ordinary things” was his way of deflecting any kind of responsibility for the blast in the wake of reports that the government ignored safety concerns about the privately-owned Soma mine raised as little as two weeks ago by opposition MPs. The anger in Soma was echoed in cities across Turkey as thousands of people with coal-smeared faces took to the streets, carrying placards that read: “Soma was not an accident, it was a massacre”. They called for the resignation of the energy minister, Taner Yıldız, and of Erdoğan himself.

There is anger at a generally blasé attitude to worker safety that prevails nationwide, and a strong sense that this blast in particular could have been prevented. Twitter has yet again proved itself as Erdoğan’s bête noir by facilitating the spread of several damning photographs relating to the government’s response to Soma, pre and post-blast. One of these shows an opposition minister speaking in Parliament on 29th April, brandishing a miner’s hard hat and warning of poor conditions in the mine, as two AKP ministers chat amongst themselves in the background. Another photograph, taken yesterday, shows the Prime Minister’s advisor Yusuf Yerkel (above) enthusiastically kicking a protester in Soma as he lies on the ground, already overpowered by a couple of gendarmes.

The government and its media mouthpieces have jumped into self-defense mode, and Erdoğan’s speech yesterday was typical of the belligerence that marks his response to any kind of criticism. Yesterday, he chose to recount a long list of mining disasters which have occurred abroad, stretching back to a British disaster in 1862 and lingering on accidents which have occurred in America, “which has every kind of technology”. His advisors seemed to have spent precious hours researching foreign mining history instead of coming up with a detailed course of action to assure the public of Erdoğan’s commitment to finding those both directly and indirectly responsible for the blast.
To many people, the insensitive tone of this speech and the irrelevance of much of its content needs no spelling out. However, when I spoke to an AKP supporter this morning about it, he was keen to explain the speech to me in its best possible light. Erdoğan expressed deep sorrow, he pointed out. It was quite right to remind the public of similar disasters – what fault was there in that?

The instinctively protective reaction of this AKP supporter explains, in a nutshell, why Erdoğan will survive what in most countries would be a serious PR disaster. He has survived more personally targeted attacks in the last six months, and his prickly self-defence is unlikely to fail him now, when he enjoys the fanatic support of almost half the population. He is rattled, however, and the protests yesterday had a raw anger that was missing from recent, more political protests. Soma is now the biggest mining disaster in Turkey’s history, and people want answers.

Photo via CNN Türk
This article first appeared in the Guardian’s comment pages 15th May