Turkey is reeling over a tragic loss of human life following an explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, with the death toll up to 238 as of this writing and at least 120 miners still trapped. The government has declared three days of public mourning, and Turks are wearing coal mining outfits and spelunking helmets in the streets in solidarity with the families of those who perished. So what does the government have to do with any of this? As has so often been the case under the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan, the damage comes in the government’s response to events outside of its control and makes a bad situation that much worse.
Workplace disasters happen all the time, and this is particularly so when it comes to mining, which is an extremely dangerous profession that takes places under volatile conditions. This past Monday, two coal miners died in a mine in West Virginia, and 29 died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010. As Erdoğan said in opening his press conference today, accidents happen. In this case, however, there is the extremely inconvenient fact that only two weeks ago, the AKP rejected a motion in the Grand National Assembly brought by the opposition CHP – and supported by the MHP and BDP – calling for an investigation into the legion of mine accidents in Soma. In 2013, for instance, 4500 workplace accidents were reported in Soma mines alone. There is also this picture making the rounds of two AKP ministers chatting away two weeks ago during an opposition parliamentary speech about safety concerns in Soma coal mines. In other words, serious concerns were raised within the last month about this particular mine, the government chose to ignore them, and now has a terrible public relations disaster on its hands on top of the fact that 238 Turkish citizens are dead after an accident that might have been avoided had the government taken the warnings about Soma more seriously.
A serious and responsible government would only have one logical response under these circumstances. It would acknowledge a terrible mistake, apologize, vow to get to the bottom of what went wrong, and generally act in a contrite fashion. But as we all know by now, the AKP under Erdoğan neither acknowledges mistakes nor apologizes, and is never contrite about anything. A preview of things to come began last night, when one of the pro-government TV channels started running a graphic putting things into “perspective” with death tolls from other mining disasters around the world, such as 1549 deaths in China in 1942, 1100 deaths in France in 1906, 687 deaths in Japan in 1914, 682 deaths in China in 1960…you can see where this is going. The messaging is that since there have been mining disasters throughout history – and really, throughout history is the operative term here given the dates used – the Turkish government should be absolved of all blame for anything related to Soma.
Then came Erdoğan’s press conference today, which began in typical fashion with Erdoğan berating a reporter for asking a question that he didn’t like, continued with Erdoğan pulling out the talking points that had clearly already been distributed to the pro-government press and citing mining accidents from around the world, including England in 1862 and the U.S. in 1907 and nothing later than 1970, and moved on to Erdoğan dismissing the motion brought by the CHP and subsequently rejected by the AKP as nothing more than a grandstanding effort to shut down the Assembly with procedural gridlock. In other words, what takes place in Turkey in 2014 should be judged by the standards of Victorian England, and the opposition’s oft-stated concerns about mine safety aren’t genuine but just a plot to bring down the government. In the meantime, police and water cannons are already confronting protesters in the streets who are upset about the government’s response, and no doubt we will soon hear from Erdoğan or one of his lackeys about foreign plots, terrorists, the insidious workplace safety lobby, and how elections confer upon him and the government the right to do anything they please.
This all emanates from the same place as Erdoğan’s response just yesterday to Freedom House ranking Turkey as not free in the realm of press freedom, during which he rolled out the tired argument that because some Turkish newspapers write bad things about the government, Turkey must by definition have perfect press freedom, and then went after Freedom House’s credibility for ranking Israel as the freest country in the Middle East, as if that fact isn’t glaringly obvious. He also brought up what he called Helen Thomas’s firing – but was in fact mass ostracization – following her comments that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back home to Germany and Poland as evidence that the U.S. does not have a free press, so therefore nobody should criticize Turkey. The playbook is always the same – deny that the facts are the facts, blame someone else, and cite incorrect information or things that are laughably out of context in order to defend grossly objectionable behavior.
It’s one thing to resort to these tactics with something like the Gezi protests or a corruption scandal, when a substantial percentage of Turks doesn’t sympathize with those protesting, or thinks that corruption doesn’t matter as long as the government is delivering economic improvements and that the inquiry is being driven by Gülenists. It’s quite another to do it with a mining disaster in which hundreds of people die, since this time there is no other side. The miners were not perceived enemies of the government, and no shadowy groups are driving any investigations. Concurrent with announcing three days of official mourning, Erdoğan essentially told the country to get over it and stop whining because lots of miners died at the dawn of the Industrial Age in countries halfway around the world. I don’t think the tried and true AKP playbook is going to be quite as effective this time around.