Mining disaster raises risk in Turkey

By bne IntelliNews May 15, 2014

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The tragic accident at Turkey's Soma coal mine has brought the risk of political instability back to the forefront, as protests erupted in Istanbul and Ankara and unions called for a general strike. 

As the death toll at the Soma coal mine rises to at least 282, grief over those killed in the disaster is giving way to anger against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government. A fresh wave of unrest is expected in Turkey, with trade unions and opposition leaders blaming the government for failure to act on the country's abysmal industrial safety record. 

Rescue workers are still at the mine, where 787 people were underground at the time of the explosion on May 13, though the search has been called off several times as conditions became too dangerous. Around 150 miners are still missing. 

Turkey's worst ever industrial disaster has sparked fury within a country where political tensions were already high. Residents booed Erdogan when he delivered an address outside Soma town hall on May 14, and called on his government to quit. Erdogan only poured fuel on the fire, telling grieving residents that mining accidents were "usual", though, he had to look back more than a century to find disasters on a similar scale in Europe to reference. 

"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," Erdogan said, also citing accidents in France and Japan in the early 20th century. "These are usual things," he added, saying that "nobody should be surprised".

The insensitive comments saw the anger spill over. A group of protesters attacked the local headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The PM was forced to seek refuge in a supermarket. 

Erdogan's entourage was clearly in panic, presumably sensing that the disaster and fluffed response risked provoking yet more protest following the nationwide clashes seen last year as crowds demonstrated against what is described as the PM's increasingly authoritarian and Islamic rule. Yusuf Yerkel, an advisor to the PM, upped the ante further when he was caught on film running towards a protester, who was being held down by soldiers, and kicking him. 

Pressure rise

Mass protests promptly erupted in both Ankara and Istanbul on May 14, the first of three days of mourning for the victims. Police used tear gas and water cannon to prevent protesters in Ankara marching on the energy ministry, and several arrests were reported. 

Protesters also targeted the mine's operator, the Soma Coal Mining Company, whose headquarters were daubed with the word "Murderers", according to Hurriyet Daily News. Four Turkish trade unions have called for a national strike over poor working conditions. In a joint statement, the unions say that safety standards at Soma deteriorated after the mine was leased to the private operator in 2005. 
"Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the very start by being forced to work in brutal production processes in order to achieve maximum profits," the statement says. 
Unionists and opposition leaders claim that mine safety across Turkey has deteriorated since the launch of a privatisation programme in 2004 that brought some of the country's largest holding companies into the sector. Analysts suggest there may be ramifications for Turkey's 2014 privatisation programme, through which the government hopes to raise TRY6.854bn ($3.44bn). "This event could turn the tide temporarily against rapid privatisation of state assets," suggests Commerzbank.

Further than that, the tragedy threatens to pile the pressure back on Erdogan's government. The opposition is clearly keen to turn up the heat, and more anger is likely to result from reports that the ruling AKP blocked a proposal by the Republican People's Party (CHP) in parliament late last year calling for an investigation into accidents in the mining hotbed around Soma in western Turkey. 

The risk is that Turkey could be heading for a new wave of mass anti-government protest. Erdogan cracked down hard to clear the streets in 2013, but in the meantime, his administration has been plagued by a major corruption probe, and anger has remained bubbling just below the surface. Istanbul and other cities saw skirmishes between protestors and police in major cities on the May 1 holiday.

The political risk has hit Turkey's economic performance, with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) forecasting on May 14 that growth will slow to 2.5% in 2014, down from 4% in 2013. "Since the beginning of the year the risk premium facing Turkey has increased, in part reflecting high political uncertainty, and the higher cost of finance is expected to weigh on domestic demand and growth," the analysts suggested.

Yet the risk has also been mitigated somewhat by the AKP's ability to rally support, particularly amongst conservative and religious voters outside the major cities. Local elections in March, widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan's rule, saw the party dominate. Another major test will be the presidential election in August, with Erdogan expected to run.

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