Turkey's Many Occupational Hazards

As the official death toll from Turkey's mining disaster in Soma continued to climb, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a press conference to rebuff the criticisms directed against his government for failing to avert the tragedy. On April 29, members from his party had rejected an opposition proposal to investigate irregularities and accidents at the Soma mining facility. Just two weeks later, a major disaster struck, claiming the lives of at least 280 miners. In his typically defiant fashion, Erdoğan disclaimed all responsibility for the tragedy and labeled it an unavoidable "occupational hazard" of coal mining. His comments harkened back to a similar statement he made following a 2010 coal mine explosion in Zonguldak: "Dying," he explained, "is the fate of the miner."

Erdoğan's responses are emblematic of a broader and disturbing trend in modern Turkish politics. Despite egregious political transgressions since assuming office in 2002, Erdoğan has managed to retain his stronghold on government power. His political success may be viewed as an "occupational hazard" of a democratic system where political representatives are elected by popular vote. Yet, where the failings of Turkey's democratic functioning have become as common as the failings of its coal mines, neither can be dismissed as mere occupational hazards. Both are pathological dysfunctions in need of immediate repair.

Many Turks pointed the finger at Erdoğan and his party for ignoring the subpar safety conditions at the Soma mine and neglecting to take action, notwithstanding opposition demands. When a journalist asked Erdoğan why the mine was permitted to continue operations despite evidence of unsafe conditions, he proceeded to reprimand the reporter: "As a journalist, I believe that you don't follow closely how coal mines work around the world. These accidents are things which are always happening," explained the Prime Minister, methodically citing examples of mining disasters from other countries. "I went back in British history. Some 204 people died there after a mine collapsed in 1838. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain. In an explosion in 1894, 290 people died there," Erdoğan added. He also cited mine accidents in the United States, France and Japan that occurred more than a century ago.

The Prime Minister's anachronistic response to the tragedy in Soma is characteristic of his governance style. In Erdoğan's Turkey, reasonable opposition demands are reflexively ignored; dissident journalists and academics are fired, sued, or jailed; and defiant prosecutors and judges are brought to heel. Although Erdoğan assumed power in 2002 with the promise to liberalize Turkey's fragile democracy, he has created an unresponsive monopoly on government power by treating his ballot-box victories as a license for anything-goes politics. Since he became Prime Minister, Erdoğan has muzzled the media, implemented legal and constitutional changes intended to increase his stronghold on power, packed state institutions with his cronies, and imposed widespread restrictions on the free flow of information, including recent bans on YouTube and Twitter, creating a culture of censorship that routinely filters out inconvenient facts.

These transgressions created a groundswell of opposition against Erdoğan, culminating in massive protests against his government in Summer 2013. Yet the Prime Minister emerged from the protests largely unscathed and also managed to weather a corruption scandal that implicated him, his family, and his cabinet in December 2013. He secured his party a decisive victory in the March 2014 municipal elections and is widely expected to run for president in August. If Erdoğan's ballot-box conception of democracy prevails in Turkey, reasonable opposition proposals, such as the proposal to investigate the safety conditions in the Soma mine, will continue to be neglected, leading to more societal disasters that can no longer be shrugged away as mere occupational hazards.

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