Erdoğan’s Katrina Moment
Hundreds of miners are trapped. Wives, mothers, kids and fathers are in deep sorrow. The deadliest mine accident in Turkey’s history is also a test of humanity for the rest of the country and its ruling party.
The reaction on the streets of Soma, during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit, bears stark resemblance to what late Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit faced after the horrendous earthquake in Gölcük-Yalova in 1999. Prime Minister Erdoğan was numb and almost in a shock about the magnitude of death and the anger directed toward him. And this has a political meaning.
I was at a meeting organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) all morning on the day of the accident, with Energy Minister Taner Yıldız. He not only participated in the renewable energy discussions, but also stressed the importance of nature and his determination to not sacrifice nature for the sake of building more dams.
Unfortunately, by the time the clocks hit 3:30 p.m. the energy minister had to move to a parallel universe of darkness. For many political observers, the prime minister sent Yıldız to the mine accident site Soma almost on purpose. It was very much like sending a gladiator to the arena full of lions. The news would be horrendously bad and Erdoğan did not want his most loyal ministers to take the heat.
As expected, the bitter reactions on the social media targeted Yıldız first. Then began the questioning of Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik’s absence from the scene. By Wednesday, Ayşenur İslam, the Minister of Family and Social Policies, had also arrived at the scene of the accident. Yıldız and İslam appeared before the media regularly and carried out a damage control mission in a successful manner. While Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit and very controversial remarks on mining accidents from the 19th and 20th century became negative trending topics on Twitter, Yıldız’s honest and sad statements about the rising death toll, and the situation inside the mine, sent the signal of “the state taking charge.” Note that these two names are actually closer to Abdullah Gül than they are to Erdoğan.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) maverick deputy from Manisa, Özgür Özel, a pharmacist by profession, was also among the first ones at the accident site. CHP chairman Kılıçdaroğlu also visited the mine site unguarded with hundreds of miners surrounding him. Taner Yıldız and Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu briefed him on the situation. This was a big change compared to the unwelcome reception that Kılıçdaroğlu faced by ministers after the Van Earthquake.
The sorrow of Soma will not vanish for decades, but the skyscraper of profit-based coal mining company Soma Coal in Istanbul’s Maslak neighborhood, its owners’ dealings with the political machinery of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), and its links to the Soma and Manisa AK Party heavyweights, will be under deep scrutiny. While the skeptics on social media think no one will be held accountable, this may be Erdoğan’s Katrina moment, the moment when former U.S. President George W. Bush faced the magnitude of suffering in tornado-hit New Orleans. Erdoğan’s presidential bid is now covered with the dust of coal and the tears of too many families.