A year after the use of brutal force against Gezi Park protestors in Istanbul, the world remains stunned at the Turkish government’s brutal reaction to legitimate democratic dissent. Their attitude toward protestors not only exposes a pattern of crackdown on democratic opposition, it signals a perception that ordinary citizens do not deserve dignified treatment. According to some analysts, it is a conscious political strategy to polarize segments of Turkish population and solidify the voter base behind the ruling party.
Most recently, plainclothes police roughed up and detained a CNN correspondent during a live report on the first anniversary of the protests. If such treatment is being dispensed to well-known journalists, there is little hope for ordinary Turkish people, who are still recovering from the deaths of 301 coal miners in Soma last month, the country’s worst mining disaster.
Grieving relatives, who should have been consoled, were treated harshly when they protested lax safety conditions at the mine. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim that such disasters are commonplace, his alleged slapping of a protester and the widely reported attack by one of his aides against a miner sent shockwaves throughout the nation.
The current turmoil has compelled the Turkish people to begin to recognize the deeply tragic impact and the human cost of systemic public corruption and authoritarianism.
Since the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) won its third term in June 2011, the party’s leaders have reversed key campaign promises. They came into office pledging to move the country toward European Union membership, free market-driven economic development and an end to the decades-long practice of marginalization of certain segments of the society.
But in today’s Turkey, success is determined less by free market economics and adherence to the rule of law and more by favoritism in the form of tax breaks, government grants and other incentives distributed by the AKP. Bribes and mandatory donations to designated “charities” are commonplace, and those who refuse political obedience are profiled and blacklisted.
The owner of Soma Holding is among the top mining licensees in Turkey. The wife of the general manager of Soma Coal Corp. is a sitting AKP member of the city council in Soma and is on the company’s payroll. Under agreement with the state ministry of mines, the government guarantees the purchase of all coal produced by Soma, providing incentives to operators to maintain maximum output. This has resulted in the evasion of safety standards.
The expedient relationship between the government and the mine operators ensured both imperfect regulation and lax enforcement. In an attempt to boost profitability, the mine owners and regulators developed an environment of “flexible work conditions,” loosened safety procedures and lowered standards for training new miners. An expert report stated that carbon monoxide sensor readings were not properly recorded and that the sensors that were inspected after the disaster showed CO2 levels 10 times higher than threshold levels.
During the last 11 years of AKP governance, 1,308 people have been killed and 13,000 injured in Turkish mines, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. The country’s rate of fatal mining accidents per million metric tons of coal stands at 7.2. That means a Turkish coal miner is five times more likely to die as a result of a mining accident than a Chinese miner, and nearly 400 times more likely than an American.
Ozgur Ozel, deputy chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), asked the Parliament to start an inquiry into the past accidents and current safety conditions in the Soma coal mine. On April 29, merely 20 days before the accident, his petition was blocked by the AKP, whose officials praised the mine for its exemplary technological capabilities. After the disaster, they immediately defended the operator.
Ozel also petitioned Parliament to determine whether Soma Holding has sent donations to AKP-designated charities – particularly the Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TURGEV), which is led by the prime minister’s son – and whether Tilaga Construction, owned by Soma Holding, had given any shares in a luxury residential complex in Istanbul to high-ranking AKP members.
The government believes that as long as it remains electorally successful, it can disregard human rights, exploit media and control civil society institutions. But as Forbes contributor Melik Kaylan recently noted in his column, plebiscites without independent state institutions do not add up to democracy.
I believe that the crisis in Turkey signals the beginning of the end of a “downward authoritarian spiral.” Guided by the AKP’s effective manipulation of the Turkish media, a significant portion of Turkish voters has been ill informed or untouched by the public corruption and authoritarian actions of the government. That may now be changing.
Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan is president of the Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit organization associated with the Hizmet movement in the United States. The Alliance was formed by a group of individuals inspired by the work of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim preacher who resides in the United States.