[An explosion at a coal mine in the Turkish city of Soma on 13 May 2014 has resulted in the death of at least 284 miners. With another one hundred miners still unaccounted for, it is the worst such disaster in Turkish history. The subsequent demonstrations seen in numerous Turkish cities appear to transcend solidarity with the miners and have developed into expressions of fury against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Jadaliyya asked Turkey Page Co-Editor Cihan Tugal to address the deaths in Soma and the protests that have erupted in response.]
Jadaliyya (J): Do the demonstrators hold the government responsible for the deaths in Soma or are they accusing it of an insufficient response?
Cihan Tugal (CT): The demonstrators, many journalists, and union leaders are holding the government responsible for a few reasons. We do not know the facts about this particular event yet, but Turkey has had a horrible track record of work-related deaths over the last decade. The main opposition party had asked for investigations into accidents already occurring in Soma a few weeks ago. The governing party voted this proposal down in parliament.
In that sense, the recent explosion is not a random event. Critics do not call such events accidents anymore; deregulation has been so intense that businesses are practically free to do as they please. In other words, these casualties are regular occurrences expected by all.
What distinguishes Soma is the massive death toll. Over the last decade, workers were getting killed one by one (or sometimes dozens at a time) in apparently isolated incidents. The overall tally was quite scary. The International Labor Organization (ILO) listed Turkey as Europe’s leader in worker deaths; globally, it ranks third. Ever since 2002, close to a hundred workers have been dying per month. That makes for about twelve thousand over a decade (more than one thousand of these were miners). A more recent official report estimated that four fatal workplace accidents occur per day. Soma only made an ongoing massacre nationally and internationally visible.
J: Should these demonstrations be seen in the context of the series of protests that began last year and appear to represent growing disenchantment with a leadership that—albeit democratically-elected—has been in power for more than a decade?
CT: The Gezi and June demonstrations, and later, smaller protests throughout the country until March, targeted many aspects of the new regime in Turkey, but the grievances coalesced around two issues: urban renewal projects that destroyed communities, forests, and public places; and increasing authoritarianism. These Soma solidarity protests put a new twist on the wave of rebellion, as they draw attention to another important dimension of neoliberal development: its exploitative character. June 2013 reflected disenchantment with commodification. If the current protests become massive, we can start to talk about an attack against exploitation.
J: Are these protests the work of a hard-core opposed to the government that will use any opportunity to demonstrate against it or do they represent a significant sector of Turkish public opinion?
CT: We need to understand that those eager to use any occasion to protest the government today constitute close to half the population. But many of these sectors might now hold back from participating, since unlike June 2013 the protests of the past several days have a working class character. Given the ideological climate in Turkey in the last three and a half decades, it is easier for the middle classes to side with well-educated environmentalists protecting trees than with coal miners. The shock value of Soma and Gezi are very different: in the former, the moral shock comes from the sheer number of dead, but not from the qualitative aspects of the event (since everybody already knew that workers, just like Kurds and Alevis, are less than second-class citizens in post-1980 Turkey). In the first three days of the Gezi protests, by contrast, many of those gassed and harassed were Turkey’s untouchables–respectable citizens with years of education under their belt–unaccustomed to mistreatment by the authorities. That was the qualitatively more intense moral shock.
Nevertheless, conversely, the Kurdish populations of Eastern and South-eastern Turkey, who remained silent during June 2013 (with exceptions mostly in Kurdish-Alevi regions), might today express a stronger solidarity, for it is easier for them to relate to the sufferings of workers than the educated youth and middle classes. But their leaders and intellectuals might downplay this event too, given the high stakes involved in the Erdoğan-initiated peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.
In short, the current protests involve both more and less than hard-core anti-government groups.
J: Do you expect these demonstrations to spread further and have meaningful consequences for Turkish politics?
CT: It is very difficult to tell. Another case to keep in mind is the protests back in 1990-1991, when the people of a mining town attempted to walk to the capital (Ankara) in response to the government’s plan to shut down the mine. Around a hundred thousand joined that march, but these were mostly residents of the town of Zonguldak, with a clear working class identity and reformist class politics. This strike was one of the reasons behind the decline of Turgut Özal, the initiator of Turkish neoliberal reform. The Zonguldak strike’s admittedly non-pc slogan Çankaya’nın şişmanı, işçi düşmanı (“The fat man of the presidential palace, The enemy of the workers”) stuck with him after 1991. Even though still in the presidential palace, his role became marginal in Turkish politics until he died of a (suspicious) heart attack in 1993. Subsequent governments were equally dedicated to neoliberal principles, but until the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the governing party since 2002, none could decisively push the process forward due to, among other factors, the lingering shadow of the broader worker protests of 1989-1991.
The situation in Soma is different. The town does not have a solid working class identity. In terms of its politics, it is far to the right of Zonguldak. It is one of the new regime’s bastions in western Turkey. Ever since 1994, it has been a strong supporter of conservative and conservative-nationalist parties. Today, it is even to the right of the broader–and quite conservative–province of which it is a part, Manisa. On paper, a similar miners’ strike (and march) seems out of the question. However, there have been many surprises in Turkey over the last year. The situation is thus unpredictable. Until two days ago, no one would have imagined that the Middle East’s conservative hero, Erdoğan, could be attacked and cornered in a supermarket in such a conservative town. It is reported that Erdoğan, caught off-guard, slapped and punched people during the hassle. The miners have astonished him as well as the rest of Turkey.
What would truly change the equation is not a repetition of June 2013, but the spread of discontent along new axes, in a way that would cut across the pro-AKP versus anti-AKP divide. At this point, this is quite hard, as the regime’s supporters see any incident that could harm the government as part of a broader conspiracy.
After the overwhelming sorrow of these few days is over, the conservative press can be expected to come up with “evidence” that the explosion was planned by Turkey’s enemies; some journalists are already preparing the groundwork for the evidence to come). However, as the government further escalates deregulation and exploitation to minimize the influence of the global recession, it might have to target and repress more of its own supporters. The regime might thereby eventually provoke massive popular protests. The “impossible” of yesterday might become the new “likely.” The rage with which a regime militant (a high-level, educated bureaucrat) kicked a miner’s relative points to this very possibility.