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The State of Turkish Politics in the Early 21st Century

The TOMA Approach to the Soma Mining Massacre

by SEDEF ARAT-KOC

In his column in the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet on May 17, 2014, Turkish academic and media commentator Emre Kongar used the term “Soma-Toma model” to characterize the political economy of 2014 in Turkey. Soma is the name of the town where a mining accident took place on May 13th, taking the lives of 301 miners[i]. Soma has come to symbolize the very high human costs of hyper-developmentalism and crony capitalism for the working class of Turkey. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), Turkey ranks as the third worst country in the world and the worst in Europe in terms of workplace deaths. Fatal workplace accidents have become so commonplace in Turkey that many union activists and commentators are now preferring to use the term murder instead of “accident”. In the Soma case, the fact that repeated warnings by engineers, technicians, workers at the site and opposition politicians in parliament regarding the risks of production methods, were willfully ignored by the mining firm and the government in the weeks and months preceding the disaster has led some activists and commentators to use the term massacre to refer to the “accident”.

TOMA is Turkish acronym for armoured police trucks supposedly used for “riot control”. TOMAs are equipped with water cannons and typically associated with suppression of protests by use of the whole array of water cannons, tear gas and plastic bullets. The full name for TOMA in Turkish (Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı) is quite honest about what it is used for in recent  years. It literally means “social events intervention vehicle”.

“Soma-Toma model’ is a very accurate term to describe the political economy, not just of Turkey alone, but that of many other parts of the world in the 21st century as it captures an association which is becoming increasingly visible in the early 21st century: that of the re-emergence of a wild capitalism –no longer restricted by even basic conditions of worker safety and workers’ rights— where governance is increasingly based on brute force. More accurately, the term “Soma-Toma model” captures the necessary conclusion that the political management of the new wild capitalism will be through repression and force, not democracy.

I want to suggest that in Turkey recently and in the Soma case specifically, what we may call the “Toma approach” to Soma has taken three different ways to depoliticize public space and workplace accidents: attempts to limit political space; naturalizing and “fatalicizing” workplace “accidents”; and if all fails, depoliticizing by crude intimidation, repression and force.

Attempts to Limit Political Space

Attempts to limit political space by reducing democracy to election results and defining social and economic issues and grievances as outside political space is a common characteristic of liberalism. This characteristic has gained new force in recent decades under neoliberalism. Recently, increased authoritanism of AKP (the Justice and Development Party) rule in Turkey has taken this worldwide trend a step further. Articulated with increased clarity since the start of the Gezi movement are ways in which Prime Minister Erdoğan has not only attempted to reduce the meaning of democracy to elections and a very crude majoritarianism but also to define any expressions of opposition that takes place outside of these as acts of conspiracy by “vandals”, “looters” and “marginals” against the what he considers the “will of the majority”. Following the mining disaster last week, when labour activists, media commentators and opposition parties questions as to whether the Soma case could be considered an “accident” –as there was clear negligence in face of many clear warnings about the risks at this site– the government’s immediate response was not to declare that they would start an independent investigation of the “accident” and those responsible for it. It was rather to attack the questions themselves as a “perception operation” produced by a “lynch culture”, a “band of protesters” “jumping and stamping on the pain of others”.

Naturalizing and “Fatalicizing” Industrial Accidents

A second attempt to depoliticize the perception and responses to the Soma mining disaster involved naturalizing the accident and presenting it as an outcome of God-given fate. In his first press conference after the disaster, Prime Minister Erdoğan used a religious term “fıtrat” (which literally refers to creation) to argue that accidents in mining were a natural and “God-given” part of this type of work[ii]. The term was meant to evoke fatalistic acceptance of the event among Muslim believers. The examples Erdoğan gave to make his point, casualty figures in mining accidents in Britain and France dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, weakened rather than supported his case.

Another ideological tool to depoliticize and pacify public reaction to the disaster was the use of the term “şehit” (martyr) to refer to those who lost their lives in the mine. The use of the term has been strategic in aiming to calm family members and relatives of the victims as the use of the term not only honours those who have died as having died for a good cause, but it also implies that the dead are guaranteed a place in heaven. Even though the “martyr” discourse was used frequently in the first two days following the disaster, it seems to have been abandoned as a critical public discourse grew representing the disaster as a man-made one. Some commentators have argued that the use of the term in this context involves manipulation and abuse of religious terminology and symbolism, as the so-called “accident” can only be explained by relaxation of safety standards due to profit motive and greed.

Intimidation, Repression and Brute Force

As the “soft” ideological strategies of managing the Soma mining disaster fail, it seems that the AKP has once again resorted to direct uses of intimidation, repression and brute force. The government has not only chosen to directly suppress protests that erupted across the country by using TOMAs, water cannons, tear gas and plastic bullets, it has also started to use intimidation, repression and force in Soma itself, where many citizens are directly or indirectly associated with the victims and survivors of the disaster and still reeling from its effects. On Saturday, May 17th, after hastily declaring the end of the search and rescue efforts at the mine,  the government asked the media to leave the site. Security forces have blockaded the town asking everyone arriving what they are there for; refusing entry and sending people back if they declare they are there to support miners’ families. Lawyers from a lawyers’ association who went to Soma to help prevent abuse and deception of miners’ families by unscruplous lawyers have been harassed by the police, some beaten up.

There have also been scandalous cases of some top government figures themselves using physical force. The day after images circulated in the national and international media of a top aide to the Prime Minister kicking a protestor (who was already held on the ground by two members of security forces), the Prime Minister himself, frustrated by protestors, was reported to have slapped a bystander (who was subsequently beaten up by Erdoğan’s bodyguards) when he took refuge in a supermarket. As academic, columnist and media commentator Nuray Mert aptly commented in an IMC TV program discussing the political developments in Soma, what this bystander said when he was subsequently interviewed by the media is as, if not more, revealing about the poor state of democracy in Turkey as the act of slapping itself. In the interview, the slapped man argued that he was not a protestor but simply someone who wanted to see Erdoğan close by. Declaring that he interpreted Erdoğan’s gesture as an “unintended touch”, he said he would not press charges, and that all he wanted was an apology by the Prime Minister (which he has not received so far). The interview ended in a glaring display of intimidation, when the man –seemingly expressing more concern about the reputation of the Prime Minister than his own experience– requested that any visual images of the incident possibly recorded by security cameras in the supermarket be destroyed!

There is no question that a “Toma approach” to politics, aiming to limit, manipulate and repress democratic space and demands, is unsustainable in the long term in Turkey as elsewhere. The question is how long and how far it will go and at the cost of how many more Somas!

Sedef Arat-Koç is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

Notes.

[i] 301 is the official figure. Actual numbers of deaths are still questioned by many.

[ii] Some religious experts have since argued that the term “fıtrat” is meant to refer to creatures of God and that it is totally inappropriate to use it to refer to occupational practices and experiences.