Last week Turkey witnessed one of the most tragic disasters in its history: over 300 miners were killed during an explosion in the Soma coalmine in Western Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan tried to rhetorically marginalize the disaster to ‘business as usual’ in the mining industry. In an attempt to support his case he used examples from some of the worst mining disasters in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The prime minister apparently saw a pattern, ignoring almost 200 years of innovation and improvement in safety regulations in the international mining industry. The AKP government meanwhile claims that they are not to blame for the accident. It is a saddening, yet clear example of the culture of impunity, which flourishes in Turkish politics and government.
"The police force was praised by Erdogan for its perseverance and courage"
Prominent members of the 1980 military coup, the most violent coup in Turkish history, were finally brought to trial in 2012. It is most certainly a breakthrough that justice can be served for a great crime in the past, yet politicians and government officials in the present still hardly if ever take responsibility for a disaster or scandal. Through the course of last year this culture of impunity reached a new all-time high.
The protests in the summer of 2013 for the preservation of Gezi Park in Istanbul, as well as freedom of speech and democracy, were suppressed with such severe police violence that hundreds remain severely traumatized or disabled. 11 young people were killed. The police force, which became the subject of strong internal peer pressure and inhumane working conditions, was praised by Erdogan for its perseverance and courage.
Several months later Turkey was startled with an extensive corruption scandal, in which several ministers, their sons and possibly even Erdogan himself were involved. Dozens of police officers and prosecutors working on the criminal investigations were transferred to new positions. Some of the ministers were sidelined for the time being, but the overall impact of the scandal on the government remained limited.
The combination of blurred borders between legislative and judicial powers, the instrumentalisation of the police force by the government, and the culture of impunity pose a serious threat to the stability and public order in Turkey.
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The mining disaster in Soma adds some particularly unsavoury elements to the existing status quo. The entire government, including Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, remain completely in the clear. Yildiz promised that those responsible will be punished. He seems to forget that he as the chief legislator is primary responsible for the disaster due to failing legislation and the lack of governmental control.
When the prime minister visited Soma on May 15, he was welcomed by a furious crowd, which called on him to resign. Erdogan, seemingly furious, punched a passer-by in his rage. His advisor Yusuf Yerkel also kicked one of the protestors who was already put down by military police. Pictures resulted in collective anger on social media, while Yerkel got support from the AKP and even deputy Prime Minister Hüseyin Çelik. Yerkel would have merely kicked the protestor as an act of “self-defence”. Case closed.
Due to this growing culture of impunity, corruption and endless interventions of politics in the judiciary, Turkey is moving along the verge of social, economic and political chaos. This is not new to Turkish politics: politicians and prominent officials who voluntarily have resigned in Turkey’s history can be counted on one hand.
"The country used to be hopelessly divided by coalition governments"
The country used to be hopelessly divided by coalition governments involving parties unwilling to really establish a powerful compromise. However, the AKP of Erdogan now has held a majority government for 12 years. Unfortunately, there is no necessity to make true compromises, which has had an impact on the AKP and most certainly on Erdogan himself. Power continues to corrupt the man who was never really known for his diplomatic skills. It has resulted in the worst organized state suppression since the heydays of the Turkish military in the 1980s.
Strange as it may seem, there are still some rays of hope. Several high officials in the judiciary have openly declared that they strongly oppose the continuous interventions and harassment of the government. Hasim Kilic, the chairman of the constitutional court and for a long time considered to be an ally of the AKP, said in a publicly broadcasted speech that the government severely compromised the integrity of the judiciary and harmed its independency.
For now this public opposition by the government’s criticasters has mostly resulted in more social and political polarization. It does, however, also provide some hope for a more mature democracy. Whether or not the judiciary is up to the task of dealing with the continuous expansion of Erdogan’s range of influence and the cover-ups of crimes and disastrous errors remains to be seen. This, more than anything, will prove to be the litmus test for Turkey’s democracy, independent rule of law and a solution to Turkey’s severe problems with the impunity of government officials.