ISTANBUL, Turkey — Workers are on strike and demonstrators in their thousands are on the streets, piling pressure on the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the worst industrial accident in the country’s history. But even though the disaster and Erdogan’s botched handling of the crisis represent a setback for the prime minister, it is not at all certain that the tragedy and its aftermath will bury his hopes to win the presidency this summer.
A fire in a lignite coal mine in the western Turkish city of Soma on Tuesday killed at least 282 workers, with dozens still unaccounted for and opposition politicians predicting that the total number of dead could exceed 400. Opposition parties and unions accuse the government of failing to police safety regulations in the privately owned mine. After a string of privatizations, enforcement generally is reported to have grown more lax.
Erdogan made a bad situation worse by going to Soma on Wednesday and rattling off a long list of deadly mining accidents elsewhere, going back to 19th-century Britain, before declaring: “Such things happen.” Following the remarks, a furious crowd of protesters attacked vehicles in the prime minister’s motorcade. Yusuf Yerkel, an advisor to Erdogan, was caught on camera as he kicked a demonstrator in Soma. Unconfirmed reports in Turkish Internet media said Erdogan himself had slapped a man in the melee.
The mining accident and Erdogan’s response also triggered protest marches that turned violent in Istanbul, Ankara and the western city of Izmir, and all this is happening at a politically delicate moment, two weeks before the anniversary of major nationwide protests. In May 2013 police action against a group of activists demonstrating against a government building project in Istanbul’s Gezi Park sparked street battles throughout the country that left eight people dead.
But neither the Gezi riots and nor a corruption scandal engulfing the government last December came close to unseating Erdogan, who won local elections in March with 43 per cent of the vote. He is widely expected to run in presidential elections in August.
Some say the prime minister’s handling of the Soma disaster could spell trouble for him. Mustafa Sonmez, an economist and author, told The Daily Beast that many people were angered by poor workplace safety and Erdogan’s stance after the accident, possibly including core supporters of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). “The AKP grass roots will start thinking as well,” he said in reference to Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Sonmez said the mining accident, which hit typical AKP voters from Turkey’s working class, would create doubts about government policies. The AKP won 43 per cent of the vote in Soma in March’s local elections, almost exactly the party’s nationwide result.
Turkey’s anti-government press on Thursday criticized the prime minister and his cabinet. “Unbelievable words” was the headline of the Taraf daily’s story about Erdogan’s visit to Soma. “Soma massacre,” said the left-leaning Evrensel. Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish academic who teaches at the University of North Carolina, claimed on Twitter that the Erdogan government had “completely bungled the response to the Soma mine disaster in all aspects: substantively, morally, and in appearance”.
But whether this outrage will translate into an election defeat in August is a different matter entirely, says Adil Gur, director of A&G, a respected Turkish polling firm. “I don’t see any effects of the Soma accident on voter behavior,” Gur told The Daily Beast.
Loyalty to Erdogan and the AKP was the main reason, Gur said. “There is an unbelievable polarization in the country. People see everything through the perspective of their party.” He said he did not expect Erdogan voters to leave the AKP in large numbers. “Nothing like this happened after the corruption scandal either,” he said. For the moment, Erdogan’s presidential ambitions look intact despite everything.
Emre Deliveli, a columnist with the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, agreed. “Erdogan has always been good at getting himself out of these things,” Deliveli told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think that many voters will track [the reasons for the accident in Soma] back to him.” Deliveli added that the street protests that erupted after the Soma accident did not constitute an indicator for the mood for or against Erdogan among Turkish voters in general. “The people that are on the streets now wouldn’t have voted for him anyway.”