Violent response: a woman demonstrating against the Soma mining disaster flees riot police tear gas, 22 May. Photo: Getty
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When safety gets privatised: Soma marks a new low for the Turkish government

Despite Erdogan’s claims that the disaster was on a par with any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking. 

Much of the anger that has enveloped Turkey since the Soma mining disaster has been directed at the government. “Prime minister, resign!” shout the crowds of protesters marching all over the country. In Istanbul, the day after the blast, I saw a young woman with a coal-smeared face holding a placard that read: “So it seems coal isn’t free.”

Here was a cynical message that got to the heart of Turks’ anger. It referred to something deeper and more serious than the spectacularly botched PR job of the prime minister’s visit to Soma, his insensitive cataloguing of 19th-century European mining disasters, his alleged slapping of a Soma local, the use of force by riot police on mourning relatives and the absence of apologies, resignations or explanations.

“Coal isn’t free” is a darkly significant statement in today’s Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made itself popular over its 11 years in power by declaring itself the champion of the masses and giving out bread, macaroni and coal to poor families – often in the run-up to elections.

At the same time, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has thrown itself into an accelerating programme of privatisation. While government spokesmen boast of the billions of lira generated by these sales, the party’s critics accuse it of selling assets cheaply and strategically to sole
bidders and failing to check on workers’ standards afterwards. A statement from the four main Turkish unions shortly after the blast accused the government of complicity, for even privatising “the safety supervision in the workplace”.

The Soma mine was sold off in 2005 and Soma Holding now pays royalties to the government in the form of 15 per cent of its coal production. The mine still technically belongs to the state, which guarantees it will buy all the coal it produces, giving every incentive to ramp up output while cutting costs. In 2012, the owner of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, reportedly boasted that he had reduced the cost of extracting coal from £77 per tonne to £14. This was achieved through measures such as making electric transformers on site rather than importing them. Miners also say that the company employed cheap technical specialists who were not union members and failed to replace outdated equipment. When asked why the mine did not have a refuge chamber, Gürkan replied that it was not required by law.

Two weeks before the blast, the AKP majority rejected the opposition’s parliamentary proposal to look into safety standards at Soma, saying that the mine was perfectly satisfactory: “God willing, nothing will happen – not even a nosebleed.” The energy minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and branded it “an example for other mines in Turkey”.

Despite Erdogan’s claims that the disaster was on a par with almost any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking: seven lives per million tonnes of coal, compared to China’s one life per million tonnes. In terms of general workplace deaths, Turkey is the third worst in the world.

The Soma disaster has been compounded by Erdogan’s clumsy response to public anger and the AKP’s zero-tolerance approach to criticism. A Turkish lawyer, who asked not to be named, said: “What has Turkey become? It feels like living in a central Asian dictatorship. It feels like Borat.”

Alev Scott is the author of “Turkish Awakening” (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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