Turkey Mine Disaster Erdogan Loses His Grip

This week's mine explosion in Soma, Turkey has killed almost 300 people and galvanized the country. Now Erdogan's insensitive outbursts, and a video of him calling a man an "Israeli brute," are spurring widespread anger.
A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel (left), advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, during a protest against Erdogans visit to Soma, the site of the recent mine disaster.

A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel (left), advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, during a protest against Erdogans visit to Soma, the site of the recent mine disaster.

Foto: REUTERS/ Mehmet Emin Al/ Depo Photos

This Tuesday's explosion in a coal mine near Soma, Turkey , is the worst industrial disaster in the Turkish history. So far, the bodies of 284 people have been recovered, but no end to the horror is in sight.

At least 55 people are still missing, and relatives wait nervously for news while a fire, sparked by the explosion, supposedly still burns deep down in the mine. Nobody has been pulled out alive since Wednesday. The anger of the friends and families of the victims is growing.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan  has brought economic growth to Turkey. But at what price? The opposition and unions are accusing government security and health inspectors of neglecting their duties as the country's business community seeks ever greater profits.

"This disaster is unlike the events that we've seen in Turkey thus far -- the Gezi protests, the corruption scandals, the police violence against demonstrators," says Umut Ozkirimli, a Turkey expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Sweden's Lund University. "Not only because of the scope of the tragedy, but because of the people that lost their lives."

Those who suffocated in the mine shafts were common people, people with whom everyone in Turkey can sympathize. "So far Erdogan has always managed to convince a part of the country that what is happening is merely a conspiracy to bring down the government," says Ozkirimli. "This time, the government's failures are clear."

Accusations of Corruption

Even those who usually stick with Erdogan are outraged, and commentators close to the Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) are asking for the resignation of those ministers responsible, especially Taner Yildiz, the minister of energy and natural resources.

Apparently, there were warning signals: Ozgur Ozel, a representative from the region's Kemalist opposition, had pushed for more inspectors in the mines just a few weeks earlier, because many people from his electoral district had complained about the mine's safety situation. But the AKP turned a deaf ear to the request on April 29, 13 days before the cataclysmic disaster.


Photo Gallery: The Mining Accident in Soma

Foto: Tolga Bozoglu/ dpa

The Ministry of Labor had never noticed anything abnormal in the mine. In March it had explained that inspections had detected nothing to find fault with. Yoldiz had personally praised the mine as exemplary.

The unions have made it clear what they see as the cause of the failure: corruption. They would like the mine inspectors to be independent and no longer on the payroll of the mining company in the future.

Critics accuse the Erdogan government of having a close relationship to the mining sector. They are already investigating possible ties between Erdogan's party and the company behind the mine.

Footage of Erdogan Attack

For his part, the prime minister is blundering and teetering. The normally charismatic man held a catastrophic speech in which he downplayed the disaster, arguing that these kinds of things have happened before, citing examples from 19th-century England. Liberal commentators scoffed that Erdogan himself had just admitted that under his government, Turkey is at least 100 years behind.

On Wednesday, AKP party headquarters were attacked with stones. The prime minister can't take a step in public without being scolded. And Erdogan's supporters can't seem to get a grip on the situation -- one of his confidants was photographed on Wednesday angrily kicking a protester.

Now another video has emerged of Erdogan himself insulting a young man standing in front of a supermarket in which the prime minister was planning on taking refuge from protesters in Soma on Wednesday. At one point, Erdogan grabs the man by the nape and yells, "Why are you running away, you Israeli brute?" Taner Kuruca, who claims to be the man in the video, told TV channel Kanal D that he "didn't think the prime minister did it on purpose," but would nevertheless like an apology.

The incident not only confirms the prime minister's notoriously temperamental character and testifies to the dramatically worsened relationship between Turkey and Israel, it also raises the question: Is this man still suited to lead a country?

On August 10, Erdogan will have to confront voters' anger during the presidential election. "He will win, because there aren't enough alternatives," Ozkirimli, the Turkey expert, predicts. "But he'll hardly be able to continue ruling as he has."